Microsoft ends Windows Live Butterfly beta testers program

homepage_butterfly As reported by Mary Jo Foley, the Windows Live Butterfly program, a group of beta testers who signed on to test whatever was thrown their way, is sputtering to a close.  From a statement issued by Microsoft on the subject:

“The Butterfly group has been involved in beta testing MSN and Windows Live products for a number of years.  Rather than continue the program as something only focused on beta testing, we’re offering the group a variety of options to engage in the broader Windows Live community, including the opportunity to join the MVP (Most Valuable Professional) program and continued and future access to beta testing opportunities.”

(how one goes about “joining” the MVP program is beyond us, but hey)

In case you didn’t know, LiveSide came about largely as a result of the (then MSN Butterfly) program.  We all met as beta testers, and were all original members of the MSN Butterfly program, which later changed its name (along with dang near everything else in Red West not nailed down) to Windows Live.

In 2003, during a beta test for MSN Premium 9, Wendy Stidmon, who was a contract employee managing the beta program (Wendy is full time at Microsoft now, and currently running the Windows 7 technical beta), initiated a “cafe” newsgroup as part of the tests.  Modeled after the MVP “Coffeehouse”, the cafe gave beta testers a place to get to know each other and post on interests outside of the beta.  At the time, Microsoft beta tests were serious affairs, populated by curmudgeonly IT professionals who sounded alarms if anyone went anywhere near “off topic”.

However the beta for MSN Premium required a different set of beta testing skills.  This was a consumer product, not a technical one, and it required more than a technical beta.  The cafe took off, engagement in the beta was unprecedented, and after the MSN Premium beta ended, with more products in the pipeline, Wendy and her boss Jon Beck (also still at Microsoft but long gone from the beta testing program) set up what became known as the MSN Butterfly program.

The idea was to keep a group of testers available and engaged, and when betas needed testers, well there we were all ready to go.  And it worked, for a time.  We tested new versions of MSN Messenger, came together in Redmond for “Butterfly Tours”, and in 2005 some 30 of us became MSN MVPs.  It was at the 2005 MVP Summit, held in September in Redmond, where the three LiveSide founders (Chris Overd, Harrison Hoffman, and Matthew Weyer –  I officially joined LiveSide 3 days after it was launched) first discussed joining together to start an MSN focused blog.  Little did we know at the time that we were being shown most of the elements of the first wave of Windows Live, and when the Windows Live initiative was announced in November of 2005, LiveSide found a name and a purpose.

So what happened to the Butterfly program?  Well of course there were some systemic problems with having non-IT pros as beta testers.  While the feedback we provided (and some of it was loud and long) ultimately made the products we tested better, turns out we couldn’t really write a bug report to save our lives.  In June of 2006, what became known as “the big purge” dumped testers who weren’t filing bug reports (including, ahem, me), and pared down the program by (guessing) 75% or so.  Attempts were made to make the Butterfly program relevant again, but actual betas were few and far between, and it’s really no surprise that the program has finally been put out of its misery.

Beta testing in general at Microsoft has moved away from the newsgroup/bug report model, you need only to look at the large public betas of Internet Explorer 8, Windows Live, or Windows 7 to see the writing on the wall.  Get the product in a large number of hands, collect crash reports and public feedback, and refine.  We can’t really argue with that.

Still, we’re going to miss the Butterflys.  We met not only each other, but many of our Microsoft friends through the program.  Together, we built a community, which is what we thought social networking was supposed to be about in the first place.  And we tried to help make better software, and better experiences, for the users of Windows Live.

We know that many of our readers have been involved in the Butterfly program in some capacity over the years, and we’d love to hear your remembrances, or feel free to correct our memories or add to the timeline.  What do you remember about the Butterfly program?