The software release life cycle is composed of different stages that describe the stability of a piece of software and the amount of development it requires before final release.
The alpha build of the software is the build delivered to the software testers, that is persons different from the software engineers, but usually internal to the organization or community that develops the software.
A beta version is the first version released outside the organization or community that develops the software, for the purpose of evaluation or real-world testing. The process of delivering a beta version to the users is called beta release. Beta level software generally includes all features, but may also include known issues and bugs of a less serious variety.
The term release candidate (RC )refers to a version with potential to be a final product, ready to release unless fatal bugs emerge. In this stage, the product features all designed functionalities and no known showstopper-class bugs. At this phase the product is usually code complete.
Microsoft and others use the term “release to manufacturing” (RTM) to refer to this version (for commercial products, like Windows XP, as in, “Build 2600 is the Windows XP RTM release“), and “release to Web” (RTW) for freely downloadable products. Typically, RTM is weeks or months before General Availability (GA) because the RTM version must be stamped to disc and boxed etc.
A box copy is the final product, printed on a disc that is included in the actual release, complete with disc graphic art. A box copy does not necessarily come enclosed in the actual boxed product – it refers to the disc itself.
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