A software release life cycle is the sum of the stages of development and maturity for a piece of computer software: ranging from its initial development to its eventual release, and including updated versions of the released version to help improve software or fix bugs still present in the software.
Usage of the "alpha/beta" test terminology originated at IBM. As long ago as the 1950s (and probably earlier), IBM used similar terminology for their hardware development. "A" test was the verification of a new product before public announcement. "B" test was the verification before releasing the product to be manufactured. "C" test was the final test before general availability of the product. As software became a significant part of IBM's offerings, the alpha test terminology was used to denote the pre-announcement test and beta test was used to show product readiness for general availability. Martin Belsky, a manager on some of IBM's earlier software projects claimed to have invented the terminology. IBM dropped the alpha/beta terminology during the 1960s, but by then it had received fairly wide notice. The usage of "beta test" to refer to testing done by customers was not done in IBM. Rather, IBM used the term "field test".
Pre-alpha refers to all activities performed during the software project before formal testing. These activities can include requirements analysis, software design, software development, and unit testing. In typical open source development, there are several types of pre-alpha versions. Milestone versions include specific sets of functions and are released as soon as the functionality is complete.
The alpha phase of the release life cycle is the first phase to begin software testing (alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, used as the number 1). In this phase, developers generally test the software using white-box techniques. Additional validation is then performed using black-box or gray-box techniques, by another testing team. Moving to black-box testing inside the organization is known as alpha release.
Alpha software can be unstable and could cause crashes or data loss. Alpha software may not contain all of the features that are planned for the final version. In general, external availability of alpha software is uncommon in proprietary software, while open source software often has publicly available alpha versions. The alpha phase usually ends with a feature freeze, indicating that no more features will be added to the software. At this time, the software is said to be feature complete.
Beta, named after the second letter of the Greek alphabet, is the software development phase following alpha. Software in the beta stage is also known as betaware. Beta phase generally begins when the software is feature complete but likely to contain a number of known or unknown bugs. Software in the beta phase will generally have many more bugs in it than completed software, as well as speed/performance issues and may still cause crashes or data loss. The focus of beta testing is reducing impacts to users, often incorporating usability testing. The process of delivering a beta version to the users is called beta release and this is typically the first time that the software is available outside of the organization that developed it. Beta version software is often useful for demonstrations and previews within an organization and to prospective customers. Some developers refer to this stage as a preview, preview release, prototype, technical preview / technology preview (TP), or early access. Some software is kept in perpetual beta, where new features and functionality are continually added to the software without establishing a firm "final" release.
Beta testers are people who actively report issues of beta software. They are usually customers or representatives of prospective customers of the organization that develops the software. Beta testers tend to volunteer their services free of charge but often receive versions of the product they test, discounts on the release version, or other incentives.
As the Internet has facilitated rapid and inexpensive distribution of software, companies have begun to take a looser approach to use of the word "beta". In February 2005, ZDNet published an article about the recent phenomenon of a beta version often staying for years and being used as if it were in production level, disparagingly called "perpetual beta". It noted that Gmail and Google News, for example, had been in beta for a long period of time and were not expected to drop the beta status despite the fact that they were widely used; however, Google News did leave beta in January 2006, followed by Google Apps, including Gmail, in July 2009. This technique may allow a developer to delay offering full support and responsibility for remaining issues. In the context of Web 2.0, people even talk of perpetual betas to signify that some software is meant to stay in beta state. Also, "beta" is sometimes used to indicate something more like a release candidate, or as a form of time-limited demo, or marketing technique. Since the introduction of Windows 8, Microsoft has no longer been naming their software as a beta. Instead, they have been using the term preview for most pre-release software. Since the launch of the Windows Insider Program back in 2014, all pre-release builds that are released through the program are known as Insider Preview builds.
Developers release either a closed beta also called private beta or an open beta also called public beta; closed beta versions are released to a restricted group of individuals for a user test by invitation, while open beta testers are from a larger group, or anyone interested. Private beta could be suitable for the software that is capable to deliver value, but is not ready to be used by everyone either due to scaling issues, lack of documentation or still missing vital features. The testers report any bugs that they find, and sometimes suggest additional features they think should be available in the final version. Examples of a major public beta test include the following:
Open betas serve the dual purpose of demonstrating a product to potential consumers, and testing among an extremely wide user base likely to bring to light obscure errors that a much smaller testing team might not find.
A release candidate (RC), also known as "going silver", is a beta version with potential to be a final product, which is ready to release unless significant bugs emerge. In this stage of product stabilization, all product features have been designed, coded and tested through one or more beta cycles with no known showstopper-class bugs. A release is called code complete when the development team agrees that no entirely new source code will be added to this release. There could still be source code changes to fix defects, changes to documentation and data files, and peripheral code for test cases or utilities. Beta testers, if privately selected, will often be credited for using the release candidate as though it were a finished product. Beta testing is conducted in a client's or customer's location and to test the software from a user's perspective.
Once released, the software is generally known as a "stable release". The formal term often depends on the method of release: physical media, on-line release or a web application.
The term "release to manufacturing", also known as "going gold", is a term used when a software product is ready to be delivered. This build may be digitally signed, allowing the end user to verify the integrity and authenticity of the software purchase. A copy of the RTM build known as the "gold master" or GM is sent for mass duplication if applicable. RTM precedes general availability (GA), when the product is released to the public.
It is typically used in certain retail mass-production software contexts--as opposed to a specialized software production or project in a commercial or government production and distribution--where the software is sold as part of a bundle in a related computer hardware sale and typically where the software and related hardware is ultimately to be available and sold on mass/public basis at retail stores to indicate that the software has met a defined quality level and is ready for mass retail distribution. RTM could also mean in other contexts that the software has been delivered or released to a client or customer for installation or distribution to the related hardware end user computers or machines. The term does not define the delivery mechanism or volume; it only states that the quality is sufficient for mass distribution. The deliverable from the engineering organization is frequently in the form of a golden master media used for duplication or to produce the image for the web.
General availability (GA) is the marketing stage at which all necessary commercialization activities have been completed and a software product is available for purchase, depending, however, on language, region, electronic vs. media availability. Commercialization activities could include security and compliance tests, as well as localization and worldwide availability. The time between RTM and GA can be from a week to months in some cases before a generally available release can be declared because of the time needed to complete all commercialization activities required by GA. At this stage, the software has "gone live".
Release to web (RTW) or web release is a means of software delivery that utilizes the Internet for distribution. No physical media are produced in this type of release mechanism by the manufacturer. Web releases are becoming more common as Internet usage grows.
During its supported lifetime, software is sometimes subjected to service releases, patches or service packs, sometimes also called "interim releases". For example, Microsoft released three major service packs for the 32-bit editions of Windows XP and two service packs for the 64-bit editions. Such service releases contain a collection of updates, fixes and enhancements, delivered in the form of a single installable package. They may also implement new features. Some software is released with the expectation of regular support. Classes of software that generally involve protracted support as the norm include anti-virus suites and massively multiplayer online games. A good example of a game that utilizes this process is Minecraft, an indie game developed by Mojang, which features regular "updates" featuring new content and bug fixes.
When software is no longer sold or supported, the product is said to have reached end-of-life, to be discontinued, retired, or obsolete, but user loyalty may continue its existence for some time, even long after its platform is obsolete--e.g., the Atari ST and Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Alpha software generally barely runs and is missing major features like gameplay and complete levels.
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