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Beta testers are generally just a number of users who, in exchange for a reduced fee or a free copy of software, agree to install program (or system) and use them. They are to report any errors, and understand that program may have bugs, can crash and might corrupt data.
A program or system might go through one, two or even three rounds of beta testing. The developers would be in constant communication with testers so as to produce best possible product.
This is way it worked, and this is method better product managers still employ. I've been a beta tester many times, most seriously a dozen years ago with operating systems such as RSX, RT11, RSTS/E and OpenVMS. One of major reasons why Digital Equipment Corporation operating systems were so good (and in many ways are still unsurpassed) - they really knew how to run a solid series of beta tests.
The original concept was very simple, but large companies such as Microsoft have corrupted it until now Beta testing is not really testing. You see, Microsoft has changed Beta testing to really be a "pre-release" or "public preview". What does this mean? It means Microsoft has option to deliver unfinished or inadequately tested code to tens of thousands of users.
Microsoft does not tend to go through a lot of trouble to get feedback from this vast army of beta testers. Oh yes, they do surveys and send forms, but to do a real beta test you need to be in firm control and be sure your testers are doing something useful.
You see, beta testing is supposed to be part of development process, not marketing and promotional process. And, truthfully, that's one of primary reasons why Microsoft (and other large companies) have had such poor quality assurance in past few years.
So, basically, beta testing helps ensure that a product is more reliable and works in environments outside of lab. And that's all it is supposed to do.
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