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vapourware also vaporware (American)

noun [uncountable]

a new product, especially computer software, that is announced to the general public but has not yet been produced or made available to buy

'The smartwatch that best suits an individual's needs and personal sense of style is the one he or she builds themselves. Therefore it's not surprising that when Blocks announced its plans to create a range of do-it-yourself wearables back in March 2014, that the project generated a lot of excitement. However, since that initial announcement, the people at Blocks have fallen silent, leading many to presume the project was vapourware – an idea that would never become a reality.'

The Star Online 4th June 2015

It's a source of frustration familiar to many of us, you spend ages deciding which thing to buy among a range of options, only to discover that your final choice is 'out of stock' and it's likely to be some time before you can get hold of it. But what if a product you'd seen widely advertised and were interested in buying wasn't just temporarily unavailable, but actually non-existent, zilch, just a figment of the promoter's imagination? This is the scenario which underpins a concept now known as vapourware.

vapourware is the term used to describe a new soft- or hardware concept that has been actively promoted outside of a company, but that doesn't actually exist yet

In the computing industry, vapourware is the term used to describe a new soft- or hardware concept that has been actively promoted outside of a company, so that its characteristics have been described in some detail to potential consumers, but that doesn't actually exist yet. If vapourware does eventually materialise, it often has features which are rather different to the ones originally promised when information about the product was first released. However more often, vapourware never actually becomes a reality, to the extreme frustration of anyone who might have considered buying it. The most famous examples of vapourware which never made it into the community at large include the 'Phantom' by Infinium Labs, a games console which in 2003 claimed to be capable of outperforming the Xbox, PlayStation II and GameCube; Ovation, a software package announced in 1983 and promoted as an office suite incorporating word processing, spreadsheet and database management tools; and, in the world of video gaming, Half-life 2: Episode Three, the third in a trilogy of episodes which has never surfaced even though all were meant to be released by 2007. Though particularly associated with the video games industry, over time the term vapourware has spread into many other, not necessarily computer-oriented domains, especially the automobile industry. In fact, evidence suggests it can be used in a mildly sarcastic way to describe practically any kind of product or service that is much talked about but never actually comes to exist.

Vapourware can also simply be used to refer to products that are released far behind schedule. Bluetooth and 3G are in fact both examples of technologies which for this reason were at one time described as vapourware.

Background – vapourware

The word vapourware dates back to the early eighties, reportedly first used in 1982 by Microsoft engineer Ann Winblad who, on hearing of a halt in the development of a software product, compared the word to the idea of 'selling smoke'.

Use of the expression can carry rather pejorative overtones, possibly because it's sometimes considered a rather cunning marketing trick. Announcing products a long way ahead of their actual release date can give a competitive advantage, particularly to larger companies over smaller ones, because it gives smaller players the impression that they'll be unable to compete. If done in response to a product already released by a competitor, it may dupe potential customers into believing that they should hold off with their purchase because a 'better' product will soon be available.

Vapourware is of course one among many examples of productive use of suffix –ware in the computing domain. Other more recent examples include bloatware/fatware (software that uses excessive memory) and zenware (software designed to aid concentration).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 23rd February 2016.

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an unregulated form of capitalism that features financial deregulation, privatisation and low tax for high earners

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