Vaporware

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Infinium

Vaporware is a term in the computer industry that describes a product, typically computer hardware or software, that is announced to the general public but is never actually released nor officially canceled. The term also generally applies to a product that is announced months or years before its release, and for which public development details are lacking.

The word has been applied to a growing range of products including consumer electronics, automobiles, and some stock trading practices. At times, vendors are criticized for intentionally producing vaporware in order to keep customers from switching to competitive products that offer more features.

The term was coined by a Microsoft engineer in 1982 to describe the company’s Xenix operating system, and first published by computer expert Esther Dyson in 1983. It became popular among writers in the industry as a way to describe products they felt took too long to be released. Ann Winblad, who was president of Open Systems Accounting Software, wanted to know if Microsoft planned to stop developing its Xenix operating system. Some of Open System’s products depended on it. She went to Microsoft’s offices, and asked two software engineers there, who confirmed that development had stopped. ‘One of them told me, ‘Basically, it’s vaporware,’ she later said. Winblad compared the word to the idea of ‘selling smoke,’ implying Microsoft was

‘Vaporware’ took another meaning when it was used to describe a product that did not exist. A new company named Ovation Technologies announced their office suite Ovation in 1983. The company invested in an advertising campaign that promoted Ovation as a ‘great innovation,’ and showed a demonstration of the program at computer trade shows.It was later revealed by executives that Ovation never existed. The fake demonstration was created in an attempt by the company to raise money to finish their product, but they could not. This was the first time the word ‘vaporware’ was used to imply intentional fraud, and is ‘widely considered the mother of all vaporware.’

Most software products are not released on time. Software development is a complex process, and developers are often uncertain how long it will take to complete any given project. Fixing errors in software, for example, can make up a significant portion of its development time, and developers are motivated not to release software with errors because it could damage their reputation with customers. Last-minute design changes are also common.

Vaporware also includes announced products that are never released because of financial problems, or because the industry changes during its development. When 3D Realms first announced their video game ‘Duke Nukem Forever’ in 1997, it was early in its development. The company’s previous game released in 1996, ‘Duke Nukem 3D,’ was a critical and financial success, and customer anticipation for its sequel was high. As personal computer hardware speeds improved at a rapid pace in the late 1990s, it created an ‘arms race’ between companies in the video game industry, according to Wired News. 3D Realms repeatedly moved the release date forward over the next 12 years to add new, more advanced features. By the time 3D Realms went out of business in 2009 with the game unreleased, ‘Duke Nukem Forever’ had become synonymous with the word ‘vaporware’ among industry writers. The game was revived and released in 2011.

Announcing products early—months or years before their release date, also called ‘preannouncing,’ has been an effective way by some developers to make their products successful. It can be seen as a legitimate part of their marketing strategy, but is generally not popular with industry press. The first company to release a product in a given market often gains an advantage. It can set the standard for similar future products, attract a large number of customers, and establish its brand before competitor’s products are released.

Early announcements do not send signals only to customers and the media. They are noticed by providers of support products, regulatory agencies, financial analysts, investors, and other parties. For example, an early announcement can relay information to vendors, letting them know to prepare marketing and shelf space. It can signal third-party developers to begin work on their own products, and it can be used to persuade a company’s investors that they are actively developing new, profitable ideas.

A developer can strategically announce a product that is in the early stages of development, or before development begins, to gain competitive advantage over other developers. In addition to the ‘vaporware’ label, this is also called ‘ambush marketing,’ and ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ (FUD) by the press. If the announcing developer is a large company, this may be done to influence smaller companies to stop development of similar products. The smaller company might decide their product will not be able to compete, and that it is not worth the development costs. It can also be done in response to a competitor’s already released product. The goal is to make potential customers believe a second, better product will be released soon. The customer might reconsider buying from the competitor, and wait.

Announcing a product that does not exist to gain a competitive advantage is illegal via Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, but few hardware or software developers have been found guilty of it. The section requires proof that the announcement is both provably false, and has actual or likely market impact. False or misleading announcements designed to influence stock prices are illegal under United States securities fraud laws. The complex and changing nature of the computer industry, marketing techniques, and lack of precedence for these laws applied to the industry can mean developers are not aware their actions are illegal.

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