Vapourware: the phantoms that never were

Mark Pickavance looks at the tangible legacy of products that were big on promotion and short on reality

Here at Micro Mart we often cover new and exciting technological developments. History has taught us, though, that as promising as many projects look initially, many will never actually make it off the production line.

Actually, in many respects the definition of vapourware would suggest that the strongest candidates don’t even make it on to that production line in the first place. The truly nebulous projects are those that have nothing more than a marketing budget and the belief that what’s being proposed might achieve enough momentum to become reality at some point.

Shadow boxing

Looking at the scope of vapourware, there are two distinct types: those where projects go horribly wrong and those where the project never really existed in the first place.

That first category isn’t something new to the world of computing, because the automotive industry has been doing this sort of thing for years. The logic of phantom projects is to manipulate your competitors to either not release a product they’ve created when it would be disadvantageous to you or even to completely collapse a project in another company through misinformation.

Possibly the classic example of this from my own childhood was the awesome BAC TSR-2, a combat aircraft developed in Britain that looked like it had come from the design department of Tracy Island. Had this aircraft evolved into a production vehicle it is very likely that we’d have never needed the Panavia Tornado and its associated pan-European development. It wasn’t the TSR-2 that was the vapourware in this story; that moniker can be attributed to the General Dynamics F-111K swing-wing fighter bomber. This was the aircraft that the American government convinced the UK Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, would be a much better and cost effective solution than our own TSR-2.

In a highly charged and political atmosphere, the TSR-2 was cancelled only months after those working on the project had been given assurance by the PM that their jobs were safe.

What wasn’t known at the time was the F-111K had already encountered major problems, and when development costs skyrocketed and timescale extended, the purchasing plan for that equipment for the RAF was also abandoned.
It would have made perfect sense then to resurrect the TSR-2 and deliver this amazing aircraft, but that wasn’t possible, because when the project was cancelled the MOD decided that to avoid further discussions on the subject, that the partially completed aircraft and all their construction jigs should be cut up! The only prototype TSR-2 ever to fly, designated XR219, was taken to the combat range at Shoeburyness and used to research the damage caused by projectiles on aircraft sub-systems.

Having led the UK up the garden path with the F-111K, the US aircraft industry then capitalised on the hole in our procurement plans by selling us the F-4 Phantom II, an aircraft we’d originally rejected for the role envisioned for the TSR-2. The fact they got offered an aircraft called the ‘Phantom’ to replace one that was never delivered is not without a fine sense of historical irony.

Standing ovation

In the world of computer software, projects that don’t actually exist have been commonplace from the outset, as those who market them often get well ahead of the development curve.

Possibly the most famous of all is one called Ovation, which aimed to cash in on the explosive growth of business systems in the early 80s. At this time it was products like Wordstar and Lotus 1-2-3 that were making their companies millions, and Ovation Technology looked like it could join that elite group of major software players.

It first appeared in 1983 and offered a very tempting notion of an integrated office suite that had a word processor, spreadsheet, database and communications package all in one tool. Given that computers of the era generally did one thing at one time, this was an exciting development, and many people couldn’t wait to use Ovation. A year later, having burned through $7M in investor cash the company declared bankruptcy, having never released a single product.
It was later admitted that the product demonstrations that Ovation presented at a number of computing trade shows were faked in an attempt to get further funding to deliver the project. As such, Ovation didn’t actually exist, other than as a marketing exercise.

It is this project that supposedly coined the expression vapourware, but it was an American who first used it, so technically it was by definition ‘vaporware’.

The Forever Project

I can’t write anything about undelivered software without mentioning Duke Nukem Forever, a poster-boy for project overruns on a gigantic scale. Duke Nukem 3D title was an innovative first-person shooter that appeared in 1996, as a sequel to a minor arcade shooter that came five years earlier. It was one of the first titles where you could destroy the play area, revealing new areas to explore.

As it sold well, it wasn’t long before the creator 3D Realms announced the follow-up title Duke Nukem Forever in April 1997. The original plan was to get the game to market in 1998, but it missed that year. According to the mythology of this, game development continued on this version until 2001, at which point people began to accept that the title might not ever appear even in this millennium.

Much to the surprise of many, 3D Realms released a teaser trailer for the game in 2007 but, due to monetary issues in 2009, most of the development team left, supposedly just when the title was ready to go ‘gold’. 

After some legal wrangles over the publishing rights, the title was taken up by 2K Games, who got Gearbox Software to code it in 2010, and exceeded previous expectations by releasing the title in May 2011, a full 15 years after it was first announced. This is probably the longest development period of any game, although now it’s released it doesn’t technically fit the pure criteria of being vapourware.

Lost In La Mancha

Continuing my subtle theme, when a product comes along and it’s called ‘Phantom’, then there might be a hint that it’s short on substance. In early 2003 a new game console was announced that offered the power to, “outperform the Xbox, Sony PlayStation 2, and GameCube”.

Further information revealed that the Infinium Phantom, by Infinium Labs would be a console that drew inspiration from the Xbox design, being a PC running an embedded version of Windows XP. How much would this cost? It would be free! Eh? The business model that Infinium was working was one where you signed up to a contract, like a phone, and for two years of business you’d get the console for free and a continuous stream of titles to play.

Even early on many people had their doubts that the Phantom would ever launch, though Infinium did show a prototype machine at the 2004 CES, and then again a year later after a visual revamp. The project ran into the reality buffers when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revealed that it planned to bring charges against the Infinium CEO, Timothy Roberts. Paperwork filed with SEC had shown that over three years the company had burned through some $62.7m, of which just $3.5m went into product development. Allegedly the company still exists, somehow, and even managed to get an order from Alienware for a funky LapBoard keyboard/controller device that it had shown with the Phantom - although it never actually delivered any to my knowledge.

Possible futures

I’ve talked about the mists of project development hell of the past, but what of the future? There are a number of existing or recently announced projects that are giving off that distinctive pungent whiff of vapourware. 

A notable one is the nD handheld console (yep, another console!), a handheld gaming device that according to the website (the-nd.com) will sell for $10 when it is launched. If that sounds too good to be true to you, then you’re not the only person thinking that. The website hasn’t had any progress news on the console since July 2011, and states the release date as “in 2012” and “before the Wii U launch”. Considering that software developers haven’t yet seen the device, it looks unlikely to meet either of those deadlines.

While the Raspberry Pi has demonstrated that small powerful computers are able to be made inexpensively, the idea of packing one of those and a colour LCD inside a robust casing does seem likely to cost more than $10. I’d loved to be proven wrong, but having plenty of ambition isn’t a substitute for an actual product launch.

However, it’s not the only handheld games console that’s missing in action. The Razer Switchblade is another that people were expecting by now. First unveiled nearly two years ago at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, the Switchblade was the brainchild of a team of ex-Apple, HP and Dell engineers who first came together in 2009.

At CES in January 2011 they demonstrated a device that impressed people so much it actually won The Best of CES 2011 People’s Voice award. Two years later, where is the revolutionary PC gaming platform? The current status of the project is ‘in development’ with no launch date available, and the CEO of Razer has cryptically mentioned that when it does arrive it won’t resemble the prototype device that was seen at CES. Since then, people have mulled over what sort of gaming experience a machine based on the Intel Atom is likely to deliver and how long it might actually take before it’s available to buy.

Kickstopper

Another source of these types of projects is undoubtedly crowd-funding services such as Kickstarter. In this situation a visionary imagines something they’d like to do, creates a presentation outlining their intentions, and then seeks funding to turn the project into reality. These might be hardware, software or a combination of the two.

Many of these projects get the funding they need, and are completed to the satisfaction of the majority who invested, but not all. Statistically only 25% of Kickstarter projects are completed on time, but eight months later that number rises to 75%. That leaves 25% of problematic projects that achieve their funding goal (and lots never do), but then either fail to deliver in a reasonable timescale or are entirely abandoned despite being fully funded.

It’s worth noting that 80% of the projects that only get 20% of the money they asked for are completed, so cash isn’t always the issue when a project becomes terminal. What I’ve also failed to mention is that Kickstarter has a policy of cancelling projects it believes are potentially fraudulent, designed to fail or misrepresent themselves to investors.

Kickstarter has had a number of high profile game projects that were abandoned, but most notable was Haunts: The Manse Macabre. This project offered the backers the chance to explore a haunted mansion, and the developer, Mob Rules, asked for $25,000 to complete the project it had already spent $42,500 on. It got that money and a little more from 1,200 backers, and the project development continued.

Unfortunately, software development is an expensive exercise, and it also requires willing participants. Both the lead programmer and his second in command have both walked away from the project, leaving the project leader Rick Dakan to explain that, “I am still determined to get the game out, but I no longer have any way of knowing when and how that will happen.”

Those who start these types of projects accept the Kickstarter terms of use. These require that either they complete the project as specified or they return their investors’ money. However, even Kickstarter accepts that on occasion that’s not possible, when projects like this enter development hell.

Final thoughts

With the exception of those products promoted as spoiling tactics, most companies never actually set out to produce vapourware; it just happens. Especially in this digital age, with the advent of rampant social networking, there are many thousands of eagle-eyed industry watchers ready to pounce on a company that makes promises and then fails to deliver.

Being vilified on a regular basis in public for your product development timelines isn’t something most companies want to experience, and it has the added dimension of putting off prospective investors. Yet it still happens.

What vapourware is usually a good indicator of is other substantial issues the company has either in the management of projects or the people it’s employed to do them. The worst excesses are usually the result of a disconnection between those who have the vision that drives the company and the poor individuals tasked with turning that reality into something concrete and purchasable.

Having worked on a few ‘death march’ projects myself, it can be incredibly demotivating to have senior people consider the many unseen challenges of assembling a complicated code solution as a ‘detail’, and the enforcement of rigid deadlines irrespective of the impracticalities of sticking to them. If a project becomes massively late, it was often because the scale of the task wasn’t fully mapped out before work began or it was insufficiently resourced from the outset.

Software development also has the added twist of being difficult to achieve with a large team, as code coordination is a genuine challenge. Inevitably, either one person or a very small team become the fulcrum around which the whole project revolves, and the removal of them can condemn a project entirely. Someone coming in to replace them is confronted with the decision of whether to try to understand often undocumented code or start entirely from scratch.
Given these dimensions, the fact there are vapourware projects isn’t a huge surprise and perhaps what’s truly surprising is that there aren’t more of them.