In the olden days, a lot of software was released to a very closed group of people at the beta stage. You would pound on it, take time and care to pay close attention to what you were doing, report all of the details carefully, try this and try that and report in along the way. Swap spit with other testers in the group and try their tricks and, as always, record and report religiously.
Somewhere along the way - Google? - beta versions became the new black. These days cool software is beta forever. At the bottom end of the scale it's a new term for 'this is probably pretty solid but it might not be so don't bet your business on it.' At the top end of that scale it's as solid as any released software. I've recently seen 'beta' versions of software offered where no feedback is even possible, much less requested.
This week I found a bit of the old school. Feedlounge will be an online RSS reader. It is now in alpha test - which they are treating like the old beta tests used to be. You have to be invited to join the test. It took me about a month to get an invitation - talk about pent up demand. I was begging to be added and I didn't even know to what!
There's a very active forum for bugs and user experiences and ideas. Very active. And the developers are being so smart. No forum entry languishes more than about 5 minutes. They publicly reward you for smart, detailed and timely reporting by thanking you publicly for being sharp and smart and quick.
It's been a very fun experience so far. I had forgotten how much fun being part of the process really can be. I've never written code. Wait, that's not true. I've created some fine - and I mean excellently fine - Hello World programs. But, they have been very singular affairs. I love the idea of really being able to help those who can really greet the world with their cool programs.