About a month ago, Microsoft released Internet Explorer (IE) 8 beta 2. You can download this beta from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/internet-explorer/beta/default.aspx. But should you?

Wikipedia’s “Software release life cycle” entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_release_life_cycle) provides different descriptions for how “buggy” beta software might be. It mentions that “Beta level software generally includes all features, but may also include known issues and bugs of a less serious variety.”  To digress a bit, this sentence might explain why Microsoft stopped using the term “beta” for its SQL Server 2008 limited releases and began calling them Community Technology Previews (CTPs) instead. The SQL Server team was only adding features when they were deemed stable, rather than giving us a build that had all the features in a barely working state. Each new CTP had more features than the one before. And because the SQL Server 2008 CTPs didn’t include all the features, they weren’t technically beta releases.  Another sentence in Wikipedia’s entry sounds a little more ominous. It says: “Beta software can be unstable and could cause crashes or data loss.” So which is it? Does beta software include bugs of a less serious variety, or bugs that can cause crashes and data loss? Are you willing to take a chance? I’m sure your answer is: “It depends.”

The following are some questions you might want to ask before installing beta software:
• Are there features or bug fixes included in the beta that you’ve been desperately waiting for?
• Do you have good backups of all the data that the new software might affect?
• How easy would it be to revert to the previous (non-beta) version if necessary?
• How would your job be affected if the beta software ended up causing a crash and data loss, or if it just stopped working completely?

Part of the answer to the last question depends on if you’re using the software on a test system. But for personal productivity software, there might be no such thing as a test system. For example, the money management software I previously used had a severe problem creating and printing invoices. If I printed an invoice after saving, the internal format of the invoice would change, and I could never make any changes to the invoice, or even print it, again. I was desperate for the fix, so I installed a beta as soon as it was available. I have no “test” system for my personal software, but you can bet I had (and still have) good backups.

Test systems can also include virtual environments, and it can be a good idea to use them because the answer to the third question for SQL Server CTPs is usually “not very easy.” I need to test prereleases of SQL Server for the writing and course development that I do, so I can’t wait until the final product is released. But I do my testing in a virtual machine (VM) and create a new, clean environment for every prerelease version.

What about beta versions of OSs? Because I work 10 hours a day in my OS, using one that’s potentially unstable, or one that might have serious faults, isn’t an option. (My husband tried to install a Windows 98 beta on his everyday machine years ago, and after it became totally unusable due to the instability, it took him well over a week restore his system. That scared me away from installing beta versions of OSs, probably for the rest of my life.)

So now you have to decide about whether to install IE 8 beta 2. It’s not as innocuous as personal productivity software that might be easily revertible, but it’s also not as completely invasive as OS software. Having my browser software stop functioning would be a major inconvenience, but there would be plenty of other work I could do without that particular browser.  I’ve just started going over the list of enhancements in IE 8 at http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc288472(VS.85).aspx, and so far none of the new features seem like ones I can’t live without. Of course, your answers will probably be different than mine. What betas do you install?