Remember when beta testing was free?

Yesterday's Amazon press conference was an interesting experience. I was impressed by some of the new tech, but not impressed with how it presented them. If you are invited, you can purchase a product in beta at a slight discount. Let Amazon know if there are any problems!
Let me start by briefly describing my experience. In 2010, I applied to a Google pilot program regarding a new type computer, which eventually became the Chromebook. Wikipedia says that I was one of 60,000 applicants. I was thrilled to be accepted into the program and received a Cr-48 prototype laptop with the new, somewhat incongruous, Chrome OS. Although it was published in numerous tech magazines, it was clear that the unit was intended for testing purposes only. The Cr-48 was given to all of us. We were asked to test them and give feedback on any issues or general impressions about their utility. About a year later, the first Chromebooks were shipped to retail.

(Even though the test period was over, and more sleek Chromebooks were available on the market for purchase, the Cr48 machines received Chrome OS updates for many years. My machine finally died, so I had to give it away to a friend who wanted Linux installed on it.

To see if Astro works, you can pay $1,000

Most companies don't give away tens or thousands of test devices free of charge, the way Google did with the Cr-48. A company may offer beta versions of its software to its most active users. These may include warnings and discounts on the final version. Pre-production units are often given out by hardware manufacturers to developers, bloggers, employees and other parties so that last-minute problems can be fixed.

Some vendors have been selling what amounts to beta hardware for years and asking for money. Why waste time giving away free hardware when customers will pay for it?

Let's take the latest example: Amazons Astro robot. (I use robot with some ambivalence. As some of my colleagues commented, Astro is basically an image on wheels. The debate about what constitutes a robot is old. Amazon seems to be concerned enough about Astros usefulness that it is limiting its users and asking them for feedback on how the product works. It has now announced that you will need an invitation to get this new product. If you are eligible, you will be one of the few who can pay $1,000 to test the Astro's effectiveness.

If it doesn't,

In 2013, Google invited applicants to Google Glass, its latest beta project. Contrary to the Cr-48, the Google Glass privilege required you to pay $1,500. Google's glasses enjoyed a brief popularity in the media, while activists and Congress debated privacy implications. The glasses became less of a retail item and more designed for medical, construction, and other specialties. There are many original Google Glasses still in storage, waiting to be pulled out for a nostalgic moment.

It is a question that I often wonder if Google would have made available their Google Glass betas to more people than they did to a select few high-income tech enthusiasts. Would the outrage at the privacy invasions be as widespread? This is especially true when you consider how much data our phones record.

Amazon appears to have made this pay-to-play strategy a fine art. It has allowed customers to use its most innovative and questionable equipment through a program called Day 1 Editions since September 2019. Yesterday it added the Astro and the Amazon Glow to its lineup. This remote device is for children, and costs $250. The Ring Always Home Cam is a security drone that hovers around your home when there are no other people (including pets). Although the Always Home was introduced last year, it was not yet available for testing. You can now request an invitation and, if you are lucky enough, test one for $250.

The Day 1 Editions page has a very interesting introduction. You will receive an invitation that says you can buy the product and provide feedback. This is a way Amazon could protect itself against negative feedback. It can filter out any environment it has already tagged as a potential weak point.

Amazon is now Kickstarter

It could be argued that Amazon's approach is not that different from Kickstarter. In this case, vendors ask for help to pay the initial manufacturing costs of their product and then offer to give back a copy at a reduced price.

While Amazon does have access to well-equipped, staffed labs and funds for testing, as well as enough employees to ensure that new products are distributed and tested in everyday circumstances, Kickstarter vendors often lack the resources. Even though members of Day 1 Editions have no one to blame but themselves if their Astro falls down, any final Kickstarter product that is flawed will be thrown out by its contributors.

Also, Kickstarters are not Amazon.

As a Prime member since way back, and as the proud owner of at least one Echo Show, I love the fact that Amazon keeps developing new products. Astro robots may become a popular and useful product with any luck. It's not surprising that the original Amazon Echo was only available to invite-only customers. They could end up in the closets, or on the desks of tech enthusiasts who love hacking old devices.

Here's the problem: Do you really want to spend a lot of money to beta test for a company with almost unlimited resources? It is up to you to make that decision.