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You read an article in the news about a product, service, or app that caught your interest. There is a lot of press about it with a lot of exciting features. Perfect you think. The company hasn’t given a firm release date, but it’s listed as summer of this year.
The summer months go by with no word on a firm release date. So you go to your favorite search engine and find nothing written about the product beyond the initial coverage.
What’s up? What happened? Well, you may have stumbled across a phenomenon known as vaporware.
What is vaporware?
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, it’s all too easy for a company’s new product to get lost in the noise. Traditional TV and print is expensive, and digital ads don’t always appeal to customers. So what should a company do? In an attempt to dig themselves into our minds, they’ve learned to take advantage of the hype.
Product launches, interviews, trade show visits, and prototypes are all surefire ways to generate news. Many companies even tie that attention to crowdfunding campaigns to capitalize on that interest.
In recent years, the technology industry has matured, leaving fewer truly innovative products. Growth-seeking investors are pushing their companies to bring new and exciting products to market.
These product launches are often tied to annual events such as CES (Consumer Electronics Show) and IFA (International Consumer Electronics Show Berlin). The big tech companies are holding events throughout September and October to announce their new lineup in time for Christmas. Constrained by time constraints and encouraged by investors, many technology companies are promoting products before they are ready for release.
Media coverage has the desired impact and attracts customer interest. However, without a ready-to-ship product, there is much that could prevent its eventual release. Production difficulties, design challenges and feasibility could halt product development.
When the previously announced product is dormant, the company often has no incentive to announce its demise. We as consumers wait with bated breath for a firm release date, but sometimes it never comes. The product that never materialized is vaporware.
4 examples of vaporware
The specter of vaporware is more common these days, but has been present ever since the dawn of modern computing. There are countless instances of misleading product advertisements, but we’ve rounded up four notable examples.
Long before the advent of Windows, Microsoft created a number of operating systems. Most influential was MS-DOS, widely credited with Microsoft’s position as one of the largest technology companies in the world. However, in 1979, Microsoft licensed Version 7 Unix from AT&T.
The agreement meant they couldn’t name their product Unix, so it was renamed Xenix and sold exclusively to OEMs and not to end users.
Personal computing was still in its infancy in the early 1980s, and the big tech companies of the time were fighting for dominance. IBM and Microsoft had collaborated on many projects earlier in the decade. In 1984, however, IBM spurned Microsoft’s Xenix for PC/IX from Interactive Systems Corporation. Around the same time, AT&T began marketing its own version of Unix, known as System V.
The combined effect caused Microsoft to lose interest in Xenix. The development team was pulled from the project and assigned to the OS/2 project with IBM. There was never any official announcement about Xenix’s demise, but reports suggest that the origin of the term vaporware was a Microsoft developer when asked about the status of the project.
Microsoft quietly sold the rights to Xenix to SCO in 1987.
2. Half-Life 2: Episode Three
Valve is probably best known for Steam, their video game distribution platform. Launched in 2003, Steam now accounts for nearly 20% of global PC game sales with over a billion registered accounts. Prior to Steam, Valve produced the critically acclaimed first-person shooter gaming franchise Half-Life.
After two full-length games, Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Valve announced a trilogy of shorter games, Half-Life 2: Episodes One, Two, and Three. Episode 2 was released in October 2007 and scored 90 out of 100 on Metacritic.
Half-Life 2: Episode Three was due out before Christmas 2007. The festive season came and went without a word from Valve about the status of the game. Concept art was leaked in 2008, but Valve still refused to comment. Many years passed with only cursory references to Episode Three, although developers and writers occasionally spoke about it in interviews.
In a 2015 interview, Valve’s director, Gabe Newell, said that due to its managementless structure, game development generally only happens when a large number of employees decide to work together on a project.
Many saw this as an implicit admission that Episode Three would never see the light of day. However, as of 2023, Valve still hasn’t officially confirmed if Half-Life 2: Episode Three has been canceled.
3. Kickstarter “Learn iPhone App Development”.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding juggernaut. As of February 2023, the site had committed around $7 billion to over 200,000 projects. As daunting as these numbers may sound, that accounts for only 40% of all projects, with the remaining 60% failing to meet their goals.
Anyone with internet access can start a project on the site. This has caused reputational damage to Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general – thanks to scams, scams, useless products and project failures. However, since these websites allow creatives and designers to bypass the traditional ways of marketing their products, they also lend themselves quite well to vaporware.
Programmer Taylor Beck launched his Learn iPhone App Development Kickstarter campaign in early 2014. The campaign promised a series of training videos and surpassed its $2,000 goal, eventually raising $54,626. However, two days before the product was released, Taylor released an update:
“Hello everyone, this is the last update before the release of all content in just two days! … Next time you hear from me is on the 30th, so update in two days then!”
Taylor Beck then disappeared. He closed his social media accounts, deleted his blog and did not offer any further updates. Nine years later there has still been no update or explanation.
It’s not clear if Beck failed to keep his campaign promises and panicked, or if he deliberately defrauded supporters. With no endorsement either way, Learn iPhone App Development earns its place in the ever-growing list of crowdfunding vaporware.
4. Potential Vaporware: Beyond Good and Evil 2
Beyond Good & Evil 2 has a running world record for the longest development time for an AAA game. It has been in development since 2008 and has yet to be released. Since vaporware is defined as products that are “never” released, Beyond Good & Evil 2 isn’t technically vaporware – yet.
Still, 15 years is too long a time to develop, and that makes Beyond Good & Evil 2 a prime example of potential vaporware. The first sequel was released in 2003, and shortly after its release, designer Michel Ancel stated that the universe was too big to fit in a single video game and that he planned this to be the start of a trilogy.
That was enough for fans to speculate about Beyond Good & Evil 2. After many leaks and rumours, Ubisoft finally announced in 2008 that they had started work on Beyond Good & Evil 2. Totally forgotten and resurfaced until Ubisoft mentioned it again at E3 2018 (E3 is a major gaming fair that takes place annually takes place). They even showed a trailer for it.
But that’s it. No release dates, no new footage, nothing. There was a development, albeit rather backward, and it was Michel Ancel who left Ubisoft in 2020. He stated that Beyond Good & Evil 2 was in good hands, and Ubisoft later confirmed that the game was still in development.
While not official vaporware yet, the project’s development history provides enough clues for fans to perceive it as vaporware.
How to recognize vaporware
The general saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here. We all enjoy technology and are enthusiastic about the latest products and innovations. Despite this, we sometimes fall victim to effective marketing. Many media companies also issue press releases verbatim – making it difficult to find objective reporting.
When a company announces a new product that makes you passionate, take a critical look at what they’ve been telling you so far. While this isn’t foolproof, there are some markings to look out for. Is there a firm release date or is it at a vague or indefinite date? Do their claims sound reasonable and achievable? Does the company have a good track record?
It gets a little trickier with crowdfunding campaigns. If the project achieves its goal, your money goes straight to the creator, with little recourse. The same critical thinking applies here, but there are a few additional things to consider before supporting a project.
Do not buy or invest without doing your research first
Vaporware isn’t always easy to spot. If it were, investors would never get it, and the term wouldn’t exist. The best thing you can do is research each project as best you can before investing and keep your fingers crossed!
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