I guess when there is an alpha, there is a beta :) but in the start-up maturity cycle, should there be a differentiation between an alpha and beta release? If so, what are some concrete differences?
Conclusion from multiple answers:
The alpha release is one of the last broken/buggy internal releases
The beta release is the reasonably stable version you can give to your users
old joke: An alpha release means it doesn't work. A beta release means it still doesn't work
Alpha is typically used internally, a beta release might be given to selected customers/end users
Personally, I see it like this:
Bottom line is... beta is ready for the public. Alpha is not. To me, the distinction between when something is ready for beta, versus staying in alpha, is whether or not the public will generally be turned off by the state of the application. If it's too buggy to really be of use to them, not only are they not going to use it very long, but you're going to get a lasting reputation for having a poor application. So it really is a matter of your user base and their tolerance for bugs.
If you have a very technical crowd, many of them will be "more understanding" of bugs and are able to see past that for the better elements. If you have a "more casual" crowd, they might not care about the poor functionality as long as the graphics are crisp and there's transparency and other useless/strictly visual aspects. It goes without saying that a keen understanding of your user base is essential for EVERY aspect of a project, and this is no exception.
Depends really on how you feel. Obviously Beta is closer to the "final release" than Alpha. How bad do you want the product "out"? if you can wait till beta, i'd recommend that. if you must be "first" or there's a serious time constraint for getting your app out there, go with alpha, but make sure your users know this is alpha and that they are "early adopters"...
More humor: How about Beta=production? Google started it (Gmail was in Beta for about 5 years), and now it seems every other web site wears it as a badge of honor. Totally meaningless in terms of public perception. However Beta used to mean that all known significant bugs have already been removed, and the product is ready for public consumption. If this is not true, then you are in Alpha.
Alpha = Release for "internal users" testing, usually unstable. This means you release the software version inside your company/organization for testing.
Beta = Release for public testing, usually software is complete in terms of features.
There are some pretty major distinctions between Alpha and Beta. Alpha is focused on quality/engineering issues almost exclusively, while Beta takes a more 360 view of the product. In addition to testing for quality, Beta gives you the opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of your documentation and product marketing, you have an idea of how actual customers feel about your product, you can begin to plan for user-support hot spots after launch, etc. The main takeaway is that you can only expect to understand so much from Alpha and its relatively controlled environments and incomplete state. With Beta, you are testing your product with real customers in their real environments.
The company that I work for did a blog post on this a few months ago with a table that summarizes the key differences. If you're interested, you can read it here.