Microsoft’s vaporous tablet

In the early 1990s the term “vapourware” appeared, it was born out of big software vendors announcing mythical products with a whole new bunch of features which the opposition already had.

Usually that next great product never appeared; it was just a ploy to stop customers defecting to the competition’s superior product.

There were a number of ways to spot vapourware – the lack of a working prototype, vague release dates and no firm pricing being just three.

Earlier this week, Microsoft brought tears to the eyes of grizzled IT industry veterans who missed the days of regular vapourware announcements with the “launch” of their Surface tablet computer.

After springing the event at short notice on the tech media, forcing the poor petals to travel to Los Angeles rather than their usual haunts of Silicon Valley, Manhattan or Texas and then starting the event late, Microsoft added insult to injury by not even letting the journalists play with a working version of the Surface, let alone take one home to play with.

One of the impressive things about vapourware are the specifications and this is true with the Microsoft Surface. The specifications of the base model Windows RT are about the same as the base model iPad with the added benefit of a keyboard, USB and Micro SD ports.

Looking past the hype, it’s clear Microsoft are having trouble with their strategy of a unified operating system across smartphones, tablets and traditional PCs, which has forced them to announce two different versions of the Surface, running different operating systems on different chipsets.

Having potentially incompatible products makes it even more important for tech journos and early adopters to play with the new devices to see how well they work – that version one of any new product doesn’t work well is another lesson from the 1990s IT industry.

In the spirit of vapourware, Microsoft hasn’t mentioned what either version of the Surface will cost, which probably indicates they don’t know what the final sticker price will be either.

Despite being funny, there was a serious side to vapourware – in the 1990s businesses often held off purchasing decisions or upgrades as they waited for promised products or features to arrive.

While eager customers waited for products that never arrived, their productivity slipped and technologies that should have been adopted earlier ended up coming late to the office desktop.

For Microsoft investors, the nature of the Surface announcement should be disturbing as the vapourware business tactic only works for incumbents in a strong market position and the software giant is anything but strong in the tablet computer market.

While it would be good to see a credible competitor to the iPad, it’s going to be difficult to take Microsoft seriously until we see some working versions that we can play with.

The lessons from the 1990s computer industry are clear – don’t fall for vapourware and buy what works for your business today.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.


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