Beta Testing and Bug Reporting

Whenever you find a bug in a program, the first thing to do is check whether you're running the current release. Typically, the release version number is shown in the About dialog box for the program, which is often found on the Help menu. You can compare this number with the versions available from the application project's homepage.

An actively developed Free Software application has frequent releases, particularly for minor updates. Between major stable releases, development versions are likely to be available, which you can test. These are generally in one of three categories:

• Alpha: Early version, likely to be unstable. Only for the curious.

• Beta: Improved version, quite stable but may still have bugs.

• Release candidate: Mostly bug free, but still needs testing.

These terms are, of course, relative. As is the case for any kind of software, versions labeled stable can still have bugs, even crashing bugs—although they shouldn't take your computer down in flames. If you report a bug in a stable release—for example, on a mailing list—you will often be invited to test a beta or release-candidate version by a member of the development team. Performing these tests and providing good-quality feedback is part of the virtuous circle that improves Free Software applications. If, as part of this testing, you are asked to perform a task that you don't understand, don't be shy about saying so. It's much better to admit that you don't know how than for communication to go silent, because then the development team doesn't know if the problem you found has been fixed for you or not.

Some software projects offer a semi-automated system on the Web for reporting and tracking bugs. Examples of this type of system include Bugzilla, Trac, and Launchpad. These web-based systems often require you to fill in a form with your e-mail address so that follow-up questions can be sent to you. If you use this kind of form to report a bug, make sure you use an e-mail address with good spam filtering, because spammers have been known to harvest addresses from bug trackers.

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