Giving up the ghost

Written by Brett Thomas

February 6, 2006 | 08:27

Tags: #infinium #launch #phantom #product #release #stalker

Companies: #ati #nvidia

A long, long time ago, back before there was TV (let alone computers), there was a radio show called “The Phantom.” From all accounts, “The Phantom” was prime-time listening, and kids used to hurry to do their chores (yes, kids used to do chores) to be allowed to sit in front of the radio. Their eyes would get big as saucers as the deep-voiced man described the creaking stairs, the heavy steps, and the tag line…”Only the Phantom knows.” This show was a phenomenal success for one reason: It was a great story.

It appears we must be missing stories, lately, particularly in the computer and video game industry. We’ve developed a lot of stories lately, though we like to call them by a new name: vapourware. In fact, we’ve even got one that’s named “The Phantom” (the irony is just amazing). Vapourware is such an interesting concept to because it is a negative identity. It is the term to say that something that should be, isn’t. Look around you, vaporware is everywhere… you just can’t see it.

"Only the Phantom knows"

Infinium Labs, the ‘maker’ of the Phantom video game story, er, console, has actually recently secured new funding. I find this hard to believe, mostly due to the fact that I always thought people could not possibly be so stupid. The project didn’t even have a market, it filled no niche; it had nothing unusual or special to warrant its place in our pages. Yet we as an industry jumped on it, then jumped on its lack of innovation, then jumped further on its lack of production.

I would like to say that the Phantom is the only thing that we (journalists, enthusiasts, and gamers alike) have taken the bait on, but that’s simply not true. In fact, I would be remiss to not mention Duke Nukem Forever or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., one of which is on bit-tech's ten listed Most Anticipated Games of 2006, which I laughed at heartily. As for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I’m quite sure I’ve played all that there is to that title by putting the screenshots on slide-show. Along with these gems are a myriad of other things that I can’t even begin to list, or I’d run out of space.

Even hardware is frequently edging close to vaporware. ATi’s X1000 series came painfully close to being genuinely antiquated before release, as did CrossFire. Ageia's PhysX PPU has been MIA for quite some time. But let’s not just look there. Some motherboard companies are in such a rush to get “buzz” for their products now that they want reviews months before the product is even set to sell. By the time it hits store shelves for you or I to purchase, it’s been beaten in technology by a good two or three months, and that’s assuming they rushed and didn’t get all the bugs out of it.

Two BIOS revisions later, you might have a working board, but it’s already six months behind the curve. We’re so shocked now when a product is both announced as complete AND released that we celebrate it wildly, like Nvidia and the 7800GTX. Should we be so happy that something is simply available and not delayed to heck?

So why is it that we have so much vapor in our wares? And why do we cater to it? Much of this smoke and mirrors production is a result of marketing in an aggressive market. It’s an attempt to one-up the competitors by being the first to announce your idea, so that it makes the others look like they’re playing catch-up - even if you don’t have much of an idea at all, much less have it in production. Each year, things are getting discussed earlier and earlier compared to their actual availability dates, all in the name of marketing and hype. And to get the info to you first, we as journalists (who are also in a very aggressive market) bite that bait hook, line, and sinker. Yes, we are part of the problem.

The industry as a whole has begun not only to expect this, but to compensate for it. We’ve even changed definitions of words to make the whole process sound prettier. The terms “product” and “launch” are both good ones to exemplify this. A product, last I checked, is the “completed result of a manufacturing process,” which in this business would be a tangible unit. To launch, according to the dictionary, is roughly “to let loose,” as in, you are letting it loose on the market.

"A product, last I checked, is the “completed result of a manufacturing process”"

But “products” are no longer just “launched,” they’re paper launched or hard launched. Why is it launched if it’s still only on paper? To me, that means it is not a product, therefore it doesn't exist, therefore it can't be launched. It might be a good idea, a company might even follow through with producing it… but I’ll call it launched when I have it in my hands and you can too.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Geeks and Geekettes, I think its time we give up the ghost. We should not have to celebrate with ticker-tape parades when a company actually brings a completed product to the table and sells it to us, rather than feeding us a diet of hype on a series of twenty products, of which ten might make it to market eight months later, and two might be worth buying.

That all-too-frequent series of events is assuming it ever passes beyond the paper realm (or ten screenshots, which is roughly the equivalent) to begin with. I’m tired of having to laud a company for doing something that I think any company should have to do in the first place. And I’m tired of bending or flat out changing definitions to suit the industry’s marketers.

So let’s all start being honest, and stop this vaporware nonsense. I’m not against the release of an idea, but I am against calling it the launch of a product. The two are not interchangeable, or they’d be synonyms. And tacking an impossible-to-meet release date to your idea does not make it a product, either. If companies have an idea for a product, then let’s treat it like an idea. Once they have a product that can be held, touched, played, or what have you, then we’ll call it a product, and review it appropriately.

For our half of the deal, we as journalists and consumers could stop grilling so hard about the launch deadlines until it has been declared that the idea is in the manufacturing state. This way, we can keep our phantoms to the radio, and stop the incessant cat-and-mouse: ”When will it be released?” “Only the Phantom knows…”
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