What is vaporware? The mystery of false tech promises

A CGI cloud of purple, blue, and green particles representing vaporware. It is set against a pale blue background.
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Vaporware is what happens when the worst aspects of the tech world’s obsession with innovation and breathless marketing collide. Hype and exaggeration are always part of selling tech, but vaporware is a step beyond: it refers to tech products that are announced but never actually arrive. 

Whether relating to promised software or hardware, vaporware never actually makes it to the end customer. These days the concept of vaporware has moved beyond just tech products; while it’s recently been used in the same breath as AI, those in other industries deploy the term to describe promised stealth fighters or nuclear fusion power plants

Why does vaporware exist?

Vaporware can be the result of optimism, with a tech company vastly overestimating its ability to get something built either on time or at all. Throw in the uncertainty that comes with a small (or even a large) company launching an untested product then it’s perhaps surprising there isn’t more vaporware.

Some vaporware may also be more deliberate as there can be a competitive advantage for companies that announce a product that might never arrive. According to some academic research published in 2001, intentionally announcing vaporware can be used to dissuade competitors from developing rival products or entering new markets. 

What is the impact of vaporware?

There are plenty of reasons for vaporware. Ambitious projects can fail, and startups run out of money before they’ve managed to launch anything all the time. But those failures can have a big impact, especially for customers relying on those innovations to plug productivity gaps and who may have made investments in preparation. 

Announcing a new product or feature along with a shipping date signals to rivals that you are already ahead of them. That might lead them to abandon work on a rival product, believing that you are too far ahead to catch, even if in reality you were neck-and-neck. While that might leave the way clear for you, that potentially limits competition and most likely drives up prices for customers.  Customers may also alter their IT supply chain strategy in preparation for the arrival of those new features, incurring costs along the way, or choose vaporware over more tangible options.


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The ‘Osborne effect’ is related to vaporware. Named after the ill-fated Osborne Computer Corporation (OCC), the term refers to the unexpected perils of announcing new technology before it is available. In the case of OCC, the story goes that it was founder Adam Osborne’s inflated claims about upcoming but unfinished models of Osborne computers that killed customer demand in the Osborne 1 and led to the bankruptcy of the company. 

Although later analysis suggested that other competitive factors caused the downfall of the firm, it is true that prematurely announcing products that are superior to your current product line can dissuade your customers in the short term. This will cause revenue problems, with piles of unsold – and now unsellable – products filling warehouses because clients prefer to hold out of the newest model instead. If what you’ve promised turns out to be vaporware, this can compound into a more serious long-term issue.

Examples of vaporware

One of the issues with identifying vaporware is that it’s very depends on your point of view. Just because a product misses a launch date doesn’t make it vaporware, and as soon as it arrives it stops being vaporware. For many years, technologies such as AI assistants or quantum computing may have felt like vaporware as researchers promised breakthroughs that failed to reach customers. 3G, which is now being switched off at the end of its life, was held up as an example of vaporware throughout the 1990s before it was finally introduced in the early 2000s.

Beyond the Xenix example, Duke Nukem Forever is often listed as an example of something considered for a long time to be vaporware - a game sequel announced in 1997 but that only arrived in 2011.  

What are the origins of vaporware?

The term was possibly coined in the early 1980s by Open Systems Accounting Software president Ann Winblad who was trying to find out if the Xenix operating system her products relied on was still being developed; the developers acknowledged the product was no longer being developed and was as such ‘vaporware.’ 

It was picked up by Esther Dyson in her RELease tech research newsletter in 1983, who stated “Normally we don't like to be nasty: We'd rather simply be silent. But the current rash of purported revolutions, breakthroughs, and new generations requires some comment”. 

It’s a sentiment that will still be familiar to many who observe the tech industry today.

Vaporware has become a depressingly common term throughout the tech industry, reflecting a  shift to an accelerated mode of marketing that hasn’t always realistically presented the pace at which products are developed.

In the 1980s, tech magazines published annual lists of products that were so late they were considered vaporware. By 1995 the term was so well known that it featured in a judge’s review of the US government’s case against Microsoft, noting that "Vaporware" is a practice that is deceitful on its face and everybody in the business community knows it”.

Is vaporware going away?

High-impact vaporware has been in decline over the last few years at least as far as enterprise technology is concerned. Part of that is down to the adoption of DevOps, continuous integration and development (CI/CD), and widespread cloud transformation. All of these mean tech companies can deliver many small updates to their products, rather than wait for big point releases. And companies have got better at delivering usable products on time. 

“I like to think the industry has matured a great deal. It’s adopted proper engineering disciplines that it was a little light in 20 years ago,” Alan Woodward, professor of cyber security at the University of Surrey tells ITPro.

“It’s no longer expected that users will do the beta testing for software, if only because the users have become a lot more discriminating and any such behavior soon leads to a reputation that a company cannot afford as it leads to users and organizations avoiding its products.

“That’s not to say products don’t emerge with bugs, particularly security vulnerabilities. But, the better companies are very quick to issue updates. In fact, some very well-known companies issue them at such a rate sometimes it can also make you wonder why the software was issued: a tricky balance but with security you can’t delay.”

Even so, every new technology breakthrough can bring its own vaporware risk. That’s most obvious now with generative AI. As US lawmakers recently warned, the world of AI research is already filled with big claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

“The examples are numerous. One analysis that found ‘emergent capabilities’ and ‘sparks of artificial general intelligence’ within large language models was debunked by rigorous statistical analysis. Some argue that artificial general intelligence is already here, but that conclusion is called into question by the fact that AI systems as deployed often fail to function,” the authors wrote [PDF].

Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is an award-winning reporter and editor who writes about technology and business. Previously he was the editorial director at ZDNET and the editor of silicon.com.