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What is the difference between alpha testing and beta testing?

Q:

What is the difference between alpha testing and beta testing?

A:

In IT, alpha testing is commonly defined as a form of internal testing that happens while a product is still being developed, albeit at the end of that process. Beta testing, on the other hand, is a type of testing that delivers a new product to a new user base, often customers or a public user audience, in an attempt to elicit feedback on the product and catch any remaining issues.

The idea behind beta testing, and what separates it fundamentally from alpha testing, is the idea that when a program gets released to a “public” or end-user audience, it gets tested differently – not by the standards and viewpoints of internal teams, but from an end-user standpoint. There is the assumption that in beta, users will be testing in a more “real-world” way – for instance, that while internal alpha testers may be looking at code and underlying design, beta testers will be primarily testing through use, and that therefore, they will find different bugs and issues.

There are many different types of alpha testing, where engineers or others “put the finishing touches” on software, and there are many kinds of beta testing as well. Beta tests differ according to the chosen user set, their focus, and their overall response. Experts often point out that it makes a big difference what tools users have to report problems, and how they are recruited. Some industry insiders complain that many beta testing processes do not offer tools for feedback, so that they seem to be built as a formality and not to add value. Another big issue is whether agile development precludes the necessity of beta testing – many argue that even though new development processes have emerged, beta testing should still happen, not just to help find problems, but to introduce a product to an audience in an incremental way.

In the end, beta testing and how it is done has much to do with whoever is handling the development process. The same cannot be said for alpha testing, which is still internal and housed under a conventional engineering workflow. That said, there is an element of beta testing that is more “PR” or consumer-facing than exclusively focused on testing criteria. This can be seen in the gaming world, where a “beta phase” may function as a way to let audiences play around with game mechanics, get used to characters and preview other features.

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Justin Stoltzfus
Profile Picture of Justin Stoltzfus Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various Web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues.
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