So why return to the land of the public beta now? Today's Apple is hardly teetering on the edge of disaster, and OS X is a stable, mature piece of software.
Therein, I think, lies the reason. Stability and maturity are, frankly, not the kind of thing that most folks get worked up about. With so much attention focused on Apple's mobile offerings, OS X has, if not fallen by the wayside, at least certainly come to occupy a smaller slice of attention than it did when it was the mainstay of Apple's product line. In days gone by, it was more important for Apple to maintain a certain degree of secrecy and surprise around its tentpole product; these days, however, competition in the PC market is arguably at an all-time low, and Apple may have trouble even seeing its closest rivals in its rear-view mirror.
Hence moves like making OS X updates free, starting with last year's Mavericks. The company's always been committed to delivering great products, but with the PC market in disarray, Apple stands to do better by getting its latest OS into as many customers' hands as possible. The Public Beta takes that to the next level, inviting users to become part of the testing process and making them a part of a rarefied community (even if that community is a million people large).
That sort of inclusiveness goes a long way towards cementing Apple as a customer-facing company, and it even stands to gain from the testing, bug reporting, and discussion around the beta.
Much has been made of the changes in Apple during these, the early years of Tim Cook's tenure. And while we Apple watchers are perhaps overly attuned to the inner workings of the company, the signs aren't that hard to see.
The Public Beta may not even be among the most significant of them in the long run, but it is a sign that Cupertino's newfound openness isn't just some sort of strange fluke but rather an institutional decision that will inform Apple's philosophies and strategies for the foreseeable future.
As focused as Apple has always claimed to be on surprising and delighting its customers, there was always the feeling that it held itself at arm's length. The Apple that we're starting to see now would much rather fling open the doors and invite folks in.
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