Computers: Hardware, Software, Vaporware

Tardy technology bedevils an adolescent industry

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Some computer companies that tried to rush Mother Nature have ended up filing for bankruptcy or merging with other firms. Among the best-known casualties: VisiCorp, Osborne and Gavilan. Even mighty IBM is not immune to the vaporware syndrome. Two years ago the company fell so far behind schedule with the PCjr that it was forced to postpone delivery of its eagerly awaited home computer until after the Christmas sales rush. Apple, meanwhile, has still not delivered the large disk drive that was to have been the centerpiece of the Macintosh Office announced with great hoopla early in 1985. According to Stewart Alsop II, who publishes a vaporlist of tardy technology in his P.C. Letter, the problem has reached the point where "consumers often cannot tell what is being sold and what is just being talked about." Even Lotus, which earned a reputation for finishing best-selling programs like 1-2-3 and Symphony right on schedule, had its comeuppance this spring, when a Lotus program called Jazz boogied to market nearly two months late. Says Chairman Mitch Kapor: "It was like losing our virginity." One software publisher, Ansa, has adopted the policy of IBM, which usually declines to discuss products before they have been shipped to dealers. But other firms still deal in vapor. At a recent trade show, Atari announced the names of 138 programs being written for its new ST machine. Only 44 were available.

Not everyone thinks that Wizard of Oz products are bad. "There's nothing wrong with vaporware," says Daniel Bricklin, co-author of VisiCalc. Bricklin believes prototypes were crucial to that product's eventual success. "With VisiCalc," he says, "nobody knew what I was talking about until I wrote the program." To spare others that inconvenience, he has created something he calls Dan Bricklin's Demo Program, which enables a software developer to construct a convincing demonstration even if the software has not yet been written. Bricklin calls his product "a vaporware generator." But it is not quite ready for market. "It will be done," he says, "as soon as I've got all the bugs out of it."

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