Over the past couple of days, Microsoft has indicated that they will and will not be providing a public beta for the upcoming Office 2010 suite. Is this an example of a misinformed public relations person at Microsoft spouting misinformation, an example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, another backtrack on Microsoft's part, or just a simple mistake?
Regardless of why the initial information indicating that there would be no public beta for Office 14 was retracted with the news that Microsoft will, in fact, follow a similar development cycle as was used with Office 2007, I think Microsoft has made the right decision by including a public beta in the cycle. While the initial Technology Preview, which will be by invite-only, will include thousands of testers, those testers tend to be hard core technologists. Although the public beta is not likely to draw technophobes into the mix, it will greatly expand the opportunity that Microsoft has to receive feedback from a much wider array of testers at more levels of the technology spectrum.
Public betas provide broad swaths of people to get a first look at what is coming with a new Office suite. Although it's not a product that can be deployed in a production environment, having a better understanding of an upcoming product helps IT leaders make decisions regarding deployment schedules. If a beta test goes particularly well and the testers discover new "can't miss" features, perhaps that organization will be able to more easily make the decision to simply move to Office 2010 upon its release. Moreover, they may not <gasp!> even wait for SP1!
Microsoft has not made dates for the overall development schedule available beyond broad quarter-based targets. Now, let's just hope that the company doesn't get at third PR person involved to correct the correction and once again cancel plans for a public beta.