Apple has been doing public betas for its operating systems for five years now, and I can’t say I’ve seen any improvement in the quality of the software that’s come out since then. If the public beta program were an experiment, I’d be tempted to call it a failure, but only if software quality were the point. I doubt that it is.

It’s probably too early to assess the quality of the initial releases of iOS/iPadOS 14 and watchOS 7, but there are some troubling stories about data failing to sync across devices and crummy battery life (especially on watches). Even if the OSes themselves turn out to be of decent quality, the release was handled poorly. I’m not sympathetic to third-party developers who didn’t get their products prepared over the past few months, but by announcing on Tuesday that the release would be Wednesday, Apple forced all the third-party developers into a one-day fire drill that will lower the overall quality of software on iDevices for a couple of weeks, at least.

Of course, the reigning king of poor initial OS quality is iOS 13, whose many, many, many early releases would have been reminiscent of a silent movie comedy were it not for the loud groans coming from its users. But iOS 13 also had the great counter-example to public betas: the cursor/pointer support in iOS 13.4. Here was a major update kept hidden in Cupertino until it was sprung on the world in late March, and it pretty much just worked right from the start. Yes, there were apps that couldn’t use cursor support, but they didn’t lose functionality when it came out. I don’t recall stories of anyone suffering under iOS 13.4. Somehow, Apple managed to test it very well internally.

Which raises the question: what is the point of the public beta program? Is it really intended to improve the quality of the released version? If so, why do we keep hearing of bugs that are reported but persist throughout the beta cycle? Whatever its original purpose, the public beta program is now a marketing tool—a way to get Apple enthusiasts hyped about the new releases and hyped to buy the new products that come out alongside the new software.