Apr 292010
 

When I started Vaporwatch, I half-believed that Microsoft would actually release one of the breakthrough products it was “developing”. After all, the trick of announcing a product whose sole purpose was to deflate enthusiasm for competitors’ real products was just becoming too obvious and well-worn – even for Microsoft.

Well, now that Apple’s iPad has sold more than a million units in less than a month in only one country, M$ has decided to make me look like a genius by “leaking” to Gizmodo that it was time for Courier to give up the ghost.

I have to give them credit: Classic Redmond would have dragged the charade on for another year before burying it. Guess they figured spending another half a million on a “concept video” that had zero impact on Apple’s real product in the same space was wasteful. It’s not like Microsoft is any stranger to setting money on fire.  Aside from losing billions every quarter trying to push consumer electronics that no one wants, they periodically burn haybales of capital on some of the worst advertising in the business. Using that criteria, axing Courier qualifies as one of the most sensible marketing decisions Microsoft has made in the last decade.

So while the comment sections of Gizmodo are aghast with shock and mourn the premature death of a device that no doubt would have changed the face of mobile computing – even though it never had a corresponding presence in the physical universe – the sane among us knew there was a better chance of being mauled by a polar bear and a regular bear in the same day than of the Courier seeing the light of day.

Apr 132010
 

The Courier

As buzz was building to a crescendo about the Apple tablet that will eventually become the iPad, other me-too tablet announcements begin to trickle in. Not willing to let a superior product out of the gates before performing the trick they made famous, Microsoft begins “leaking” concept videos of a stylus-driven, dual-screen touchscreen tablet. You see, M$ has more than one vaporware tactic. Sometimes they’ll make a big announcement at a consumer electronics show a year and a half before their real product is slated to ship. Sometimes their corporate security periodically disintegrates, “revealing” products to eager tech sites like Engadget and Gizmodo, who unwittingly post their “scoops” while Microsoft laughs at the continued gullibility of tech media.

At companies that make real products, a leak like Courier would set off a nuclear device in the boardroom. Letting competition know the form factor, features or technology present in your forthcoming devices is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately for Microsoft, when these “leaks” hit the tech landscape, they usually don’t represent a design worth copying, don’t reveal any technical details about the product, and are immediately recognized by potential competitors for what they are. Much like the Wizard of Oz, the awesomeness of the apparition belies the nothingness of the reality.  So here’s what we “know” about the Courier:

September, 2009: Microsoft “leaks” an animated concept video of a tablet device known as Courier to Engadget. Despite the “concept” not having specs, price, OS, or release date (wouldn’t want to kill the enthusiasm with all that), the incredibly detailed animation, spanning 1:55, inspires commenter cries of “Microsoft is back!”, which I took as an incomplete blurt that ends something like “…to creating representations for which no actual product is intended”, since that is clearly their strength.

November 2009: A video detailing the Courier’s user interface is “leaked” to Gizmodo (hey, the wealth must be shared), because the more detailed the non-product, the more effective the “stopping power”. Engadget uses the curious term “advanced proof of concept”, which is usually reserved for products that “can be built” as opposed to those that “can be drawn”. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t seem to realize that no one buys their particular shovelful of bullshit anymore – except commenters on tech websites. A “Highest Ranked” comment on Engadget reads: “This isn’t a laptop without a keyboard, it’s a new device designed from the ground up to be controlled with a pen and multitouch gestures.” That one cost TMA a mouthful of coffee and almost a wireless keyboard. Engadget follows up with Steve Ballmer and pointedly asks about the device. His response, according to Engadget, is that “he swears he hasn’t actually seen it, but that it sounds like it’s something someone should make”.  Readers are left to decide for themselves whether the CEO of the company can really be so out of touch with its groundbreaking products or if the comment was just a really retarded attempt at coyness.

March 2010: Another Courier video is “leaked” to Engadget, showing how the device’s…animation…has evolved. Amazingly, even though 6 months have passed since the previous animation (which one might assume would go into the development of an actual product), the same absolute lack of details remain.

April 2010: Apple releases the iPad to extremely positive reviews. Despite being released on a Saturday, sales figures for the weekend top those of the original iPhone, indicating once again that in a market where people exchange money for actual products, Apple reigns supreme.

Apr 082010
 

Like a bloated lion, Microsoft waits for other, more innovative companies to launch products before waddling to market, bellowing the entire saunter from their shaded tree about how awesome their product is going to be. The idea being that competition would be discouraged from mobilizing and people who still hadn’t made a purchase decision would be frozen, waiting for M$’s entry. Sometimes they’d make it to market; most of the time they didn’t. Back in the days of Longhorn, an OS that was slated to succeed XP and was heavily promoted with fanciful technologies yet somehow never made it to market, this trick worked pretty well. It essentially killed innovation in the computer and consumer electronics spaces, but what the fuck, it made Microsoft money – or it least prevented it from flowing to its competition.

Nowadays, everyone in tech is wise to Microsoft’s vaporware bait-and-ditch tactics. Yet incredibly, the company continues to juice markets with nothing backing up their claims to enter them besides a “concept animation”. If there’s anything in the market that smells a little like innovation, you can bet Redmond will announce their better, more powerful version coming soon, soon, soon! Commenters in Gizmodo and Engadget spring their collective wood, actually expecting a product to be released in their lifetime. Think Charlie Brown, Lucy and a football.

As a public service to the community, TMA has decided to keep track of some of Microsoft’s “coming soon” technologies that, although are still very early in development, hasn’t stopped the company from showing off celebrity demos and producing very detailed animations of how their “products” will work. I call this service “Operation Vaporwatch”. Let’s start with Microsoft’s latest gaming vapor…

Project Natal

Jun 1, 2009: In a move no doubt intended to staunch the arterial bleeding inflicted by Nintendo’s Wii on the XBox 360, Microsoft unveils a super-advanced motion-sensing set top device with the code name Project Natal (as in Nepal, not dreidel). The device is announced with no ship date and no price, but plenty of fanfare. Its demo videos and celebrity endorsements are the talk of the 2009 E3. In a follow-up confirmation from Ballmer himself, Natal is to be released before the end of 2010. You read that right: 18 months from the product’s announcement. Try to think of a product in the tech space – any tech product – that gets announced a year and a half before its scheduled release. TMA immediately calls horse

Jun 3, 2009: In what TMA will later refer to as part of “the Wonka Factory Tour”, during which Gizmodo editors are walked through Microsoft’s product development centers in exchange for fair and balanced reporting, Mark Wilson and Matt Buchanan are treated to exclusive access to Natal’s 3D Breakout and Burnout Revenge demos. A “small PC and camera that simulates the final Natal rig” are used. One would assume the PC will not come with Natal when it does ship. No specs of said PC are divulged. Also missing is any photo or video of the actual gameplay experience – something that might actually mark the performance of the PC-enhanced units or – you know – build an actual buzz. Regardless, both editors rave about “immersiveness”. The resulting unbiased review is titled “Testing Project Natal: We Touched the Intangible”.

June 2009 – Jan 2010: Redmond is overrun by crickets. Payload delivered.

Jan 7, 2010: According to a statement from Alex Kipman, Natal’s chief developer, Natal still exists and the add-on will consume a meager 15% of the XBox 360’s processing power, or in laymen’s terms 40 dB.

Feb 23, 2010: MTV clocks the lag between body movements and the corresponding on-screen output at 1/10 second. FPS games from 1995 point and laugh.

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