Beta versions of commercial software are work-in-progress test copies released prior to the full version. They're used to put the product through real-world tests and to weed out bugs before the finished software hits the shelves. Beta Software often expires after a period of time, usually when the full version or the next beta version is released. Originally, Beta Software was released only to developers, but increasingly betas are offered to the general public, usually through the manufacturer's Web site. Windows Vista was actually released in Beta format, to the general public, by Microsoft in the fall of 2006.
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