The “Bad Blood” book by John Carreyrou compelled me to write a review. It also left me with a nagging question of ethics in software development. Is it okay for businesses to sell software that doesn’t exist? It seems like an easy option to promote an imaginary product. After all, you can say anything you want.
But why is it so hard to create software products in the first place?
There is no shortage of online articles filled with news about exhilarating product launches. Stories of software product promises that ultimately amounted to nothing. But what are these Loch Ness Monsters of our technology world anyway?
Before we attempt to answer, let’s define vapourware first.
What is Vapourware?
It was at Microsoft in the early 1980s that reportedly the word “vapourware” was first used. One of the engineers said it to Ann L. Winblad in relation to a Xenix operating system failure. She later went onto popularise the term “vapourware” comparing it to “selling smoke”.
More generally, we can describe vapourware as a software or hardware product that is announced to the world with great enthusiasm. But here’s the rub, it either doesn’t exist yet or is in the very early stages of development and may never succeed.
We, the public, like a deer in the headlights, get blinded by the headlines and embroiled in the act of promotion. But how do we end up here in the first place?
There is a common tactic deployed by companies to grab the public’s attention. During press releases, a company announces a noteworthy product by presenting early low fidelity images, vague presentations or basic prototypes. These predict a bright but vague future in the hope of attracting the interest of journalists and the media. The new product is often thinly veiled by secrecy, partly to hide the truth and partly to generate excitement. Customers are left crumbs of information here and there, and need to imagine how a product might work and hypothesise its possible uses.
The product is usually connected with creating something new, revolutionary in some sense. Only hard to achieve problems create excitement and frenzy among the media. It is so much more thrilling to chase after an elusive unicorn than paint the old horse pink and strap a pair of wings to each side.
Occasionally the vapourware condenses into an actual product. Hurray for these moments! For a long time, a virtual reality product called Magic Leap was seen by many as a classic case of vapourware. Since 2010, the public was promised a revolutionary device that could create a deeply immersive experience, a 3D feast for the eyes. The real unicorn. However, years of waiting lead to articles like this “Magic Leap blows our mind with its incredible technology…that still doesn’t…exist”.
There are some tell-tale signs of vapourware magic at work. Chief among them, lack of transparency about timelines, evasive and vague answers about product capabilities or lack of any technical specifics. Even after a long wait, when the product eventually materialises it fails to live up to the original hype.
So is there any point to this?
The Merits of Vapourware
The broad-brush mechanics behind vapourware usually work like this. For the software product to gain traction it requires marketing. In turn, this involves telling as many people as possible about the irresistible benefits of the software product you’re trying to sell. To achieve this, all the salespeople in the company are mobilised and tasked with hyping and promotion. Marketing campaigns are prepared, target groups are analysed and catchy taglines are conjured. Anything that will raise public interest and expectations. The line between reality and make-believe is rather thin at this stage.
There is nothing inherently wrong or evil with marketing your software product. It is important to start gauging the market before your company potentially invests tons of money and many development hours. The biggest advantage of promoting something that doesn’t exist yet is to canvas the feedback from early adopters. It may become clear that what you have in mind doesn’t sell as it doesn’t solve anyone’s problem. This is the reality check your product needs. In case of failure, you can pivot your idea and start again. As a positive side effect, you will release company resources to build something different instead.
An antidote to empty promises is a prototype.
Prototypes are key to quickly assessing your idea and getting customer feedback. They are an essential tool for communicating ideas within the company and to the outside world. Technology enables us to develop software prototypes fast and inexpensively in any form we desire. Marty Cagan in his book “Inspired” explains techniques and processes for product discovery and delivery.
There is a significant difference between using a prototype to gather feedback and generate sales. Using it to help refine your idea for the next iteration makes sense. You want to save time and build what the market wants. It’s not until the point salespeople start spreading embellished stories, that vapour gets created. Don’t get me wrong. Marketing people are necessary for launching actual products. But once the wheels of the sales department are set in motion on a phoney solution, it will be hard to backtrack.
The danger is that the marketing phase will inflate product image beyond reality. People will see fancy presentations, great videos, and marketing materials that far outstretch the prototype capabilities. If it turns out in the near future that the product doesn’t exist or is still only a prototype, that may tarnish your reputation significantly. You may win a few sales and thus generate revenue in the short term but lose customer loyalty in the long term.
The Development Struggle
It seems that creating a software product is actually quite hard for many companies. They have all the resources they need to create software products. Many programmers, piles of money and copious time. Yet, the innovation doesn’t yield the expected results. Throwing money at sales and marketing is much easier. This way you can quickly get new customers and feel like you’re growing revenue.
One explanation for why developing products is hard is to do with a lack of experience and expertise in the product territory. Incompetence makes people make bold claims and be bullish about the technology area they don’t understand. They conceal their ineptitude with bravado and can-do attitudes. Their lack of awareness about possible issues automatically increases the risk of failure. The possibility of a dire outcome is real.
Innovation in the area outside of your core expertise brings many challenges. Hiring is one of them. It’s hard to gauge the talent you need. For example, machine learning and artificial intelligence are hot areas for innovation. But apart from great coding chops, you need people with a deep understanding of other domains. Mathematical modelling, visual recognition or speech processing are few that come to mind. Having and hiring the right people will increase your chances for success. But, there is no guarantee that they will solve your problems quickly. Breakthroughs take time.
Take Pixar for example. In its founding years under Steve Jobs at the helm, Pixar for a long time focused on selling image rendering computers. As reported by David Price in “The Pixar Touch”, these computers didn’t sell well. Pixar wasn’t a hardware company. Their core expertise were the algorithms and software for rendering 3D animated graphics. These were already proven to work well in the classic “Luxo Jr.” animation. What is worth pointing out is that Pixar had the most talented graphics programmers in the world. With such employees, they had a strong chance to bring innovation to the world.
Even when a company has a strong vision or an idea it doesn’t necessarily mean it has the innovation structure to pull it off. My theory on this is that companies that fail, undertake innovation as if they’re building the tower of Babel. There is a grand vision that when completed will overshadow all competition and dominate the whole market. This vision permeates the top of the organisation. Only the highest-earning people engage in the innovation. The vision gets passed down the chain of command. Each step down the ladder, the vision gets more blurry. Communication between departments breeds confusion, and the final product, if it materialises at all, is merely held together with gaffa tape and glue. Like the tower of Babel when built, the product is undesirable and gets destroyed by the Capitalist God of no customers.
Can we do better?
The Path to Solidware
The path to “solidware” that I can see is much simpler and may be viewed by many as naive. It advocates building a real product first that attracts early customers and provides market feedback. This means competing for customers with the product from the beginning. It assumes that you have gone through the ideation process and chosen an idea that has potential customers. Surely you’re not attempting to build a product that nobody even wants to have as a hypothetical offering.
You don’t have to wait until a complete vision of the product is done either. A version that has the most necessary features and limits its functionality to the essential elements is what you’re aiming for. This assumes that you went through many idea generation sessions beforehand and pulled together the strongest contender. Whatever you decide to be the initial product, it needs to work well and demonstrate the features that early adopters will use.
There are plenty of software development practices for converting ideas into products to choose from. Scrum, eXtreme Programming or Kanban will all help deliver a minimum viable product (MVP). If you’re starting from zero then Lean Startup methodology is a great approach. Eric Rise explains in the “Lean Startup” book how you can unlock creative ideas, experiment quickly and develop a product people will love. On the technical side, frameworks such as Ruby on Rails are built with the development speed in mind and the premise of quick iteration. You can chop and change your application parts such as database schema easily.
Agreed, it is a slow process compared to spreading humbug. But, this gives you the opportunity to go to market with the actual product. Your solution will have good and bad points and will be subject to scrutiny from the consumers. But that’s fine. You can iterate on your product and make it better. Granted, it’s much harder to excite people about something that exists. Anyone can spin a good story and pay for more advertisements. Making a quality product that works requires diligence and hard work. But every customer you get will be there because they want your product.
Companies that choose to focus on the quality of their product sooner or later start to win in the market they intended to innovate. It’s cliched but the iPhone is a very good example of this approach. The first iteration of the phone was revolutionary but lacking in many ways - buttons could freeze and stop you from answering a call. Only later iterations of the iPhone uplifted Apple to the global mobile market domination sidelining other competitors like Nokia to second-grade players.
Where does this leave us?
Video gaming has a long history of vapourware and it’s probably going to stay this way. With a low cost of starting a Kickstarter campaign, it is easy to see developers claiming immersive environments and juicy gameplays without producing anything.
Originally started in Silicon Valley, the fake-it-until-you-make-it culture spreads like a virus to infect different industries. Entertainment, retail, and healthcare are the most affected by innovators claiming improbable breakthroughs.
My parents are from the generation that if you cannot hold it in your hands, smell it, turn it around, look at it, try it out then they won’t even consider a purchase. There is a generational leap that has happened in the recent decade or two where people pay big money for things they’ve never even touched or seen.
It is inevitable that people will be seduced by convicted con artists selling impossible dreams. Fear of missing out on a great opportunity? Maybe. Feeling of greed intensified by the promise of riches? Possibly. Basic gullibility that dictates action before any due diligence. Certainly!
And as for companies, you can fake your product for a while, but eventually, the lack of a tangible solution will catch up with you. Is it worth tarnishing your brand for cheap money?