Computers: Hardware, Software, Vaporware

Tardy technology bedevils an adolescent industry

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Last June Steven Ballmer, a vice president of Microsoft, told the press that his company would ship an important new program called Windows "before the snow falls." Microsoft made the deadline with a day to spare, despite early blizzards last fall. But the arrival of Windows, which gives an IBM computer the look and feel of an Apple Macintosh, could hardly be described as timely. Ballmer had previously announced four different release dates for the program, beginning with April 1984, and Microsoft had missed them all. In the parlance of Silicon Valley, the software had turned into vaporware, a product that is marketed before it exists.

Delays and broken promises have bedeviled the computer business since its birth some 35 years ago. The program that runs the IBM System/360 mainframe computer, for example, arrived six months later than first promised. Frederick Brooks, who managed the project in the mid-'60s, anatomized the problem in a book called The Mythical Man-Month and concluded that it is in the nature of , software to require more time than is scheduled.

Despite this history of slippage, many fledgling personal-computer companies are still selling smoke by heralding the imminent availability of hardware and software that is not even half finished. Vaporware has dented the credibility of the technology, frightened investors and given wary consumers one more reason to hold off buying their first computer.

The source of the problem is the gap between what people want their machines to do and what the technology can deliver. With computer software in particular it is easy to turn an idea for a program into a prototype that works well enough to demonstrate to potential customers, and then quickly announce it to get a jump on competitors. But before any product can be released, it may require months of refining, reworking and retesting. Hiring more programmers to speed up the job often makes matters worse. As Brooks put it, "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned."

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