I’ve got an email with this question last week. There is not one but many possible answers to this question, so I figured that I write a blog post about it.
One answer is that beamforming and precoding are two words for exactly the same thing, namely to use an antenna array to transmit one or multiple spatially directive signals.
Another answer is that beamforming can be divided into two categories: analog and digital beamforming. In the former category, the same signal is fed to each antenna and then analog phase-shifters are used to steer the signal emitted by the array. This is what a phased array would do. In the latter category, different signals are designed for each antenna in the digital domain. This allows for greater flexibility since one can assign different powers and phases to different antennas and also to different parts of the frequency bands (e.g., subcarriers). This makes digital beamforming particularly desirable for spatial multiplexing, where we want to transmit a superposition of signals, each with a separate directivity. It is also beneficial when having a wide bandwidth because with fixed phases the signal will get a different directivity in different parts of the band. The second answer to the question is that precoding is equivalent to digital beamforming. Some people only mean analog beamforming when they say beamforming, while others use the terminology for both categories.
A third answer is that beamforming refers to a single-user transmission with one data stream, such that the transmitted signal consists of one main-lobe and some undesired side-lobes. In contrast, precoding refers to the superposition of multiple beams for spatial multiplexing of several data streams.
A fourth answer is that beamforming refers to the formation of a beam in a particular angular direction, while precoding refers to any type of transmission from an antenna array. This definition essentially limits the use of beamforming to line-of-sight (LoS) communications, because when transmitting to a non-line-of-sight (NLoS) user, the transmitted signal might not have a clear angular directivity. The emitted signal is instead matched to the multipath propagation so that the multipath components that reach the user add constructively.
A fifth answer is that precoding consists of two parts: choosing the directivity (beamforming) and choosing the transmit power (power allocation).
I used to use the word beamforming in its widest meaning (i.e., the first answer), as can be seen in my first book on the topic. However, I have since noticed that some people have a more narrow or specific interpretation of beamforming. Therefore, I nowadays prefer only talking about precoding. In Massive MIMO, I think that precoding is the right word to use since what I advocate is a fully digital implementation, where the phases and powers can be jointly designed to achieve high capacity through spatial multiplexing of many users, in both NLoS and LOS scenarios.