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When should a project be released to alpha, beta and to the public?

Is it a good idea to extend the alpha and beta phases when it is needed?

When in a later phase (eg. beta), is it wise to go back to an early phase (eg. alpha) if it didn't work out?

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The right time is when the product is ready for each stage.

It's up to you and the customer to define "ready". This might be when a certain number of bugs have been found and fixed or how much documentation has been completed. It all depends on the application and what the customer is expecting.

I'll ignore the alpha phase for now.

A beta phase is usually when you think you're feature complete for this release and require feedback on the fine details of your application. This is often seen as public testing, but that depends on your application. A small scale application will be beta tested by a few select users, a large application (like Visual Studio, or Stack Overflow) will be beta tested by anybody and everybody willing to help.

The official release is when you (and your customers/users) are confident that your product can do the job it's designed for. It might not have all it's features, but those you implemented for this release will be.

Alpha testing is more nebulous. It means different things to different people. You might release an early version that not feature complete because you need more user feedback on one particular aspect. You might also need to get something "out there" to meet a specific demand and can't afford to wait.

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+1. After watching so many products keel over and die in alpha it's the last thing I'd ever want to do. I'd only ever release in beta if I believed it to be complete and bug-free, because the second it's out there someone is bound to break it... –  Mike B Sep 21 '10 at 10:28
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