Apple is using a program called AppleSeed to give non-developers access to pre-release versions of Mac OS X Lion. The program aims to collect "feedback on the quality and usability" of Mac OS X "in environments that cannot be replicated by Apple." So far it appears to be quite limited and available only by direct invitation from Apple.
Apple has long released early builds of new Mac OS X versions to developers, both to get feedback about bugs and other issues as well as to give developers lead time to test software or experiment with adding new features. Developers used to pay quite handsomely for an Apple Developer Connection membership to gain access to early builds, though Apple's current Mac Developer Program now costs just $99 per year.
Soliciting early feedback from regular users is somewhat rare for Apple, partly because Apple likes to keep detailed information about upcoming products under wraps until they are released. Developers are bound by nondisclosure agreements and, while some details leak from time to time, they usually are worried enough about losing access to the developer program that most tend to keep information about prerelease builds confidential.
Users invited to the program are likewise bound to keep any discussion about prerelease software limited to those in the seed program or Apple itself (the first rule of AppleSeed: don't talk about AppleSeed). Apple is providing a special password-protected forum for seed members to discuss features, bugs, and other issues, similar to such forums provided to developers. Apple warns that the future of the AppleSeed program is contingent on participants not sharing prerelease information with the public or the press.
Invitations are being sent out via e-mail to select users, a copy of which was published by 9to5 Mac We independently confirmed that our own source (who declined to be named) recieved an invitation last month after the first developer preview was released. No discernible pattern is clear in the selection process, at least from the handful of people that have reported to 9to5 Mac that they were invited to the program. However, Apple noted in the e-mail that selection is based on "referral and/or prior participation in our program."
According to the program agreement, participants are expected to regularly use the prerelease builds and submit regular feedback to Apple. "As part of the Seeding Program, Apple will provide you with the opportunity to submit bug reports, questionnaires, enhancement requests, issue reports and/or support information to Apple. Apple may request this information from you through the Seeding Tools as well as by phone, email, Web questionnaires, bug forms, and other mechanisms."
Apple also recently began soliciting feedback from select security researchers, hoping to spot vulnerabilities before Lion ships to the public. These researchers, including Dino Dai Zovi and "Safari Charlie" Miller, were given a specific contact to report any potential security flaws. "They've never done this before," Miller told Computerworld last month. "That they're thinking of reaching out is a good positive step," he said, though he wasn't fully convinced the change would result in a significant improvement in overall Mac OS X security.
Apple did not return our request for comment on the AppleSeed program on Friday. Still, it's encouraging that the company is looking to expand its Mac OS X alpha and beta testing to a wider audience. It should help Apple catch and squash bugs before they make it into the wild. Hopefully user feedback can also help steer Apple away from potential UI disasters, such as the "stitched leather" look added to iCal in the most recent Lion preview.