Apple is suddenly taking a much more open approach to testing its desktop operating system. For the first time in years, the company is inviting regular consumers to help test upcoming OS X software updates before they're distributed publicly. Apple says the OS X Beta Seed Program will allow anyone to "test-drive beta software and provide quality and usability feedback that will help make OS X even better." In recent years, Apple has offered beta tests for individual apps like FaceTime and Safari, but it hasn't offered a public OS X beta program since way back in 2000 — and even then it charged users $29.95 to take part. This time it's free and open to everyone, so long as you're 18 or older and have an Apple ID.

To enroll, you'll need to sign a fairly serious confidentiality agreement that forbids you from spilling details on new features early. "Don’t blog, post screen shots, tweet or publicly post information about the pre-release Apple software, and don't discuss the pre-release Apple software with or demonstrate it to others who are not in the OS X Beta Seed Program," warns Apple.

From there, it's as simple as downloading a small tool that will tell the Mac App Store that your Mac is eligible to receive the pre-release software. A new utility called "Feedback Assistant" is also included, which is where you'll put your thoughts on features being tested or any bugs you come across. Apple also encourages all users to make a backup before downloading beta updates just in case things take a bad turn.

The big question is whether Beta Seed Program participants will gain early access to the next full-fledged revision of OS X, which will likely debut at this summer's WWDC conference. It sounds like they may, but Apple hasn't confirmed directly (and likely won't for software that hasn't yet been announced). So it remains to be seen how far Apple will open the doors with the new beta program, but it's good to see the company taking a big step beginning today.