Apple is officially letting ordinary users run their beta software. While it’s not the first time Apple’s launched a public beta, they haven’t done it since the move to OS X back in 2000. Siri has bee the only Apple product since OS X released to the public in “Beta” form. Apple’s a very different company now, one that’s “double[d] down on secrecy” to quote Tim Cook. It’s clear this news took a lot of people by surprise.
It’s easy to speculate why Apple’s taking the route of a public beta. Some speculation online has been that it’s to get more diverse bug reporting to prevent some of the same issues that plagued the launch of 10.9 and iOS 7. (Some in the know claim Apple will be making the iOS 8 beta public, but we’ll see come WWDC.) That’s a good reason, but I think there might be another issue at play. iOS 7 got a lot of attention at its announcement, and there were plenty of ordinary users circumventing the developer restrictions to get it on their phones. Enough to spawn an angry editorial from Rene Ritchie at iMore. Even I downloaded the GM of iOS 7 before the official release. 
So, if ordinary, clueless users are installing this stuff anyway, why not legitimize it and get some bug reports and data out of it to make the final better? Makes sense to me, and there’s enough disclaimers on the Beta Seed Program page to hopefully scare off some people. It’s necessary, because in recent years, the word “beta” attached to a piece of software has become irrelevant. Flickr, gMail, and Siri were all shipped out as “beta” to consumers who almost certainly were unaware of the connotations. Many online services live in a perpetual beta, constantly changing features, fixing bugs, and introducing new bugs.
The dream for a lot of Apple users would be for the Beta Seed Program to be the first step towards a move away from annual, iterative software releases to regular, ongoing updates, at least to their backend services. It’s probably too soon to say that this is the case, but recent updates to iWork for iCloud suggest they might be moving that direction. Apple’s a small company compared to a lot of their peers, but they’re still a big ship, and they’ll be hard to turn. I might be reading a bit too much into the tea leaves, but I can hope this is the start of a new, more agile and responsive Apple that won’t have their newest flagship mobile OS crash to a white logo every hour.
- For those not in the know, the GM, or Gold Master, is usually exactly the same as the final release, unless a show-stopper bug is discovered. For iOS, GM builds remove the restriction requiring a registered Apple Developer account to run it. ↩