I saw a reference to vapourware the other day. It had been ages since I’d seen or heard that term used.

For the unfamiliar, vapourware is a term coined in the early 1980s and most commonly used to refer to a hardware or software tech product that is announced – sometimes to great hype – but never actually gets made or released. It’s also never officially cancelled.

The gaming industry has had a lot of high profile examples and there are entire Wikipedia pages dedicated to such long-lost projects.

The heyday of vapourware (to date) seems to have been the late 1990s and first decade of the 2000s. This was, of course, when the internet era really took off, and when the original dot-com boom occurred. Lotta money, lotta hype, lotta competition. Not always a lotta results. Caveat emptor.

There are many reasons that vapourware can happen (or not happen, I guess?). Management can buy into and broadcast their own hype just a wee bit too much. Sales/marketing can outright sell a thing that engineering or development hasn’t actually built.

A company can spend tonnes of time and money on promotion and not leave enough to cover the costs of actually building and shipping. Or determine – too late – that they wouldn’t be able to sell the product for enough to cover costs that turn out to be substantially higher than anticipated. They may end up unable to secure additional investment since their ability to ship is already questionable.

Another company might make it to market first with an offering that’s similar, good enough, or better, so first-mover advantage is lost. The longer the project ends up taking, the more pointless launching becomes.

A team might realize they need to license patents that they can’t get or afford. They might do their due diligence after announcing and learn that there isn’t enough of a market. Some products are just ahead of their time.

Or the company could be sold while development is still going on, and new management isn’t convinced of the product’s world-changing potential.

The tech industry’s dedication to innovation has also brought us new sources of vapourware, like crowdfunding. Some projects on sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have had record-breaking campaigns, but backers have received nothing for their support.

In some cases the entrepreneurs were deliberately misleading in their pitch. Those campaigns didn’t always get shut down, though, and charges and lawsuits have resulted.

In other cases, the entrepreneurs were legitimately trying to make money to go from prototype to mass production, but made any number or combination of misjudgments.

Almost ironically, in some cases the sheer overwhelming success of the campaigns doomed the products, as companies struggled to figure out manufacturing and shipping at the scale and speed suddenly needed, with insufficient capital at hand. Crowdfunding $20 million and then saying you need $20 million or people won’t get their goods seems a bit… extortionate.

Among the big reasons that vapourware happens, many are avoidable and come down to a lack of communication and/or experience. More research is needed in the research and development, from raw materials to retail customers.

It also doesn’t hurt to be as conservative as possible with engineering estimates, avoiding “yes men” at all costs, employing humility as one’s driving philosophy, and ensuring “charismatic” executives are chaperoned at all times when near a camera or microphone.

But then, tech likes its razzle dazzle, and none of those efforts are very sexy.

Of course, you could do everything right and still get wiped out by some left-field disaster. (Hello, 2020!)

I think we need additional categories, though. There are products that don’t get designed, announced, built and shipped on schedule, but they’re not total phantoms, either. Ephemeraware, perhaps? Are all failures created equal?

Can Duke Nukem Forever be shoved in the same box as the Infinity Phantom console, given it eventually did come out? But it was 15 years late and largely panned, so I wouldn’t say that launch was exactly redemptive.

And if a game does come out that late, with different underlying tech, art direction, game play, distribution, etc., is it actually vapourware come to life, or is it an entirely different product marginally based on an initial idea that did, in fact, die on the vine?

Or if a company (eventually) launches their much hyped product, but has significantly pivoted, targeted a narrower and completely different market, and built different features and functions. So now there’s a product, but it’s of little use to a substantial portion of the original consumer base that bought into it.

Is that a successful launch? (I wouldn’t want to be on their front line support team, in any case…)

Maybe some vapourware products are actually educational tools or concrete experience. To borrow from Thomas Edison, among the 10,000 ways that don’t work.

We did, eventually, get Bluetooth, Windows Vista, and Mac OS X, for example.

Being tarred with a vapourware brush isn’t great for a tech company’s reputation, but in this industry that taint has a pretty limited shelf life. At least for companies that aren’t betting the farm on vapourware and are robust enough to survive.

Attention spans are short and news cycles relentless. The lust for newness never abates, and thanks to the size and scope of tech giants, a failed product is barely a blip, and they can abort far more projects before there’s even a whisper of them.

Because of this landscape of behemoth dominance, I’d suspect vapourware has become substantially less likely, for the time being, anyway. It’s harder than ever for small startups to get a market foothold or mass attention. And if what they’re up to is even remotely promising, it’s almost more likely they’ll be acquired before they get anywhere near shipping.

Perhaps, though, the pandemic will influence a shift. I read recently that business applications in the U.S. are up 40 per cent year-over-year, thanks, in good part, to the pandemic. A lot of people lost their jobs and stability, and entrepreneurship became at best a “why not?” proposition, and at worst a Hail Mary at survival.

Now, desperation doesn’t strike me as an ideal foundation for taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. Maybe it’s my Canadianness speaking, but I’d think confidence combined with good business and financial supports would be more fertile ground.

However, I have to wonder if new growth may end up providing fertile ground for one other category of vapourware: scams. After major societal hardships, people tend to get very gung ho and community-oriented. We’re going to need new businesses and products to fill gaps being left by those we’re losing now, and people generally want to help.

But in that enthusiasm (and razzle dazzle?) it’s easy for the average consumer to fail to do our research on that development, and shell out for “recovery” projects that may never come to fruition. I guess the most universal advice simply remains caveat emptor.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.