Friday, March 28, 2008

Vapourware

Vapourware is defined as "a software or hardware product which is announced by a developer well in advance of release, but which then fails to emerge, either with or without a protracted development cycle. The term implies unwarranted optimism, or sometimes even deception". In other words, software that promises users the sun, moon and stars, but never comes to fruition. Even if the software does make it into the light of day, it doesn't do most of what it was purported to.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of this in the world of software, and it is an oft-used tactic to keep users from switching to another available option. If you'll just please wait for the release of this wonderful new software, it will do everything the other brand does, and more! Our current offering doesn't provide this feature, but just wait until the next release, it will be better than sliced bread!

One fine example of vapourware can be taken from the world of open source. Specifically, the new and improved gaming console once conceived of as the Indrema gaming system. Here's where vapourware manifested itself in hardware. Indrema promised a whole new type of gaming console; one that is based on open standards; one that uses Linux as its base; one that would be capable of replacing your other consoles through emulation. In theory, it was an idea way ahead of its time. Just look at the proliferation of hacks to run Linux on virtually every gaming console available (the latest breakthrough being the hack to run Linux natively on the Wii). Sadly, the Indrema was too ambitious and lacked the funding to make good on its promises.

OpenOffice is another project that seems to uphold this vapourware tradition. From as early as 2003, users of OpenOffice were told import of WordPerfect documents would be available real soon now through libwpd. Sure, they have it, and it works fine for basic tables and text, but where do all the graphics disappear to, even in versions as recent as OpenOffice 2.3? Now, you could argue that at least the OpenOffice team has done their best at implementing what they can from the WordPerfect document schema, but full importing of archival WordPerfect documents is still a pipe dream.

Corel, for it's part, could have had a much greater impact on this situation, had it chosen to do so. Instead, we have the evaporated WordPerfect for Linux and CorelOS to look back at. CorelOS delivered on a lot of what was promised, and yet due to financial difficulties, and dubious associations with Microsoft, it was dropped (now in the incarnation of Xandros, the OS lives on). WordPerfect for Linux, on the other hand, was never what it could have been, and if it was promised to be a Linux-based equal to WordPerfect on any other platform, it very poorly missed the mark.

Not being the sort that likes to bash the efforts of any open source endeavour (because I really do think this method of development holds the key to future innovations and progress in computing), I feel the need to point out at least one of Microsoft's vapourware announcements. How about Bob, anyone? I'm sorry, I guess Bob was real – a real embarrassment for Microsoft, and now virtually buried down some deep, dank Internet hole. How about something recent? Vista, maybe? Yes, I think it's fair to point out that Vista has a great deal of vapour surrounding it.

Let's start with WinFS, which was promised to Microsoft users back in 2003. Microsoft has had users on the hook for a while with that one, hoping they would be able to organize and locate their files with such greater ease because of the improved file system. How about Aero, the new and improved Vista graphics interface, for Windows XP? They promised it. That seems to have only made it into premium editions of Vista. Did delivery deadlines and the inability to make it work with the underlying bulk of Windows proved too much for even Microsoft's vast resources to be able to save? How about hobbling Vista from the PC-to-PC synchronization feature that once was in the beta version of the program?

Too often, software makers put out promises of “the next best thing” being right around the corner. Many times, they don't deliver. Overall, openly developed software provides the best hope of actually providing what users want to see. If there is real demand for a feature, any interested party can fund development of that particular feature; or, in the case of a talented individual, they can simply do it themselves. Even if the original developer disappears off the development scene, the code can be recycled and made into whatever the end users need of it. With closed software, regardless of who develops it or what promises they've made, there is never end control on the part of the end user. What you get is what they provide.

Instead of putting off that buying decision the next time a future version of software is announced, why not have a look around and see if you can find similar features in an open source project, and support the development of something that fits your needs – and your budget – for now, and into the future.

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