The Temptation of Vaporware

Vaporware is a term coined to describe software and hardware products which were talked about by the companies working on them, long before being ready for the market. Many such products never end up getting to the market, at all.

In fact, looking the term up on Wikipedia will lead you to a reasonably lengthy article which starts as follows:

“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 cancelled.”

While the practice of creating vapourware products has been used successfully or not by several companies to gain market penetration or hinder a competitor’s chance of getting such penetration, such practice can lead you into a pernicious trap. Once you’ve started talking about products which you haven’t yet finished, or sometimes even began to develop, you might find yourself hard pressed to deliver on the vaporware vision you created.

I’ve had the opportunity to see more than one company make this mistake, sometimes even multiple times.

But what is so bad about telling people about software you still haven’t developed? While you’re still at the talking stage, the main drawback is that someone else, with more resources than you have, might manage to materialize the product faster than you. But the worst part comes when you talk so much about what you are going to do, that you start to believe too much on what you are telling people.

It’s at this point that some people start to sell their nonexistent products. When you start down this slippery slope, you set deadlines which you might or might not be able to meet. When you are not able to meet these deadlines you may have two choices: go back on your word to your customer or start dropping features.

Which features would you drop from your product? Features your customers don’t know about yet? Features you believe your customers won’t miss, at first?

Of course, you might tell yourself that starting out with fewer features is just the thing. You’re building an MVP! (Minimum Viable Product) You’re following lean product design, after all!

There are lots of things you can rationalise about what you are doing, but the bottom line is that you’ve just lost control of your product’s development. From this point on, you’ll be slashing features left and right and when pushed to meet totally artificial deadlines, developers might start to cut corners on just how well some features are implemented as well.

Of course, you might realize in time that you are not going to be able to complete a reasonable facsimile of your original product idea and go back and tell your customers so. If you do this, soon enough your customers might be a bit put out, but they will probably take it in stride. When you insist in being blind the facts, however, and dive headlong, waiting until it is a fait accompli that your product isn’t ready and that you’re not going to deliver, your customer relationships will sour very fast.

You might want to talk about your product inside your company in order to motivate your fellow workmates. This will bring some pressure to bear on your project, but it should be manageable. It is when you bring on outside pressure that things really start to go down the drain.

Depending on how far and wide you’ve weaved the web of information about your, as yet non-existent, product, you might become the target of articles and posts about your inability to deliver. Or you might lose contracts which you would otherwise have won and kept, if you had waited until you had a product to start selling it.

I have no doubt that most people who follow this path start out from a perfectly understandable compulsion to tell people about this great idea they or their company had. About this product which will make so many problems and difficulties go away for so many people. That is the temptation of vaporware.

It is this temptation, perfectly innocent at first, that you must avoid at all costs for it acts like a drug. Once you’ve started to talk about your product, the next step will be to make promises on what it will or will not do. After that you may get to the phase where you actually start to sell this amazing product that you don’t really have.

Once you’ve taken this last step, you’re committed and it will be ever harder to break from the pattern. Many companies go through hard times to break this pattern just to fall right back into temptation and start the cycle all over again.

If you find yourself face to face with the temptation to create vaporware, do you yourself a favor: turn away.