On Monday, Linda Sharps, marketing manager for The Omni Group, posted an entry to Omni’s company weblog regarding their forthcoming “GTD” task management application, OmniFocus. The entry was titled “OmniFocus: not really an update”. The nut of it:

Anyway, so OmniFocus. Okay, the news is this: we’re still working on it.

The end!

The point of the post seemed to be that while Omni is happy that people are excited about OmniFocus, Omni is not happy that people are badgering them for status updates. I linked to it using the title “Just a Little Reminder to Let Us Know That OmniFocus Is Still Vaporware”, and wrote: “This is why you shouldn’t pre-announce apps.”

That seemed to strike a nerve, as it prompted this response from Sharps, “Vaporware, pre-announcements, and conch-bleatings (oh my)”, wherein she expends 700 words denying that OmniFocus is vaporware. Her defense starts with a description of the non-existent products peddled by one of her former (unnamed) employers:

Those products were vaporware, pure and simple. They did not exist, the “features” they offered varied based on who the salespeople were talking to, and the half-built, buggy technology that was supposed to be the base of all these fantastic offerings did nothing more than crash your entire system and maybe the computer of the person sitting next to you for good measure. Then it went and kicked your dog.

In its current state, OmniFocus is a little bit crashy, too. Okay, maybe our internal nickname for OmniFocus is Crashy Von CrashaLot, That-Which-Triggers-Kernel-Panic, but hey, that’s why it’s not in beta yet.

But it’s not vaporware. It’s just not completed. There’s a difference, and it has to do with being sincere about what we want to offer, and not touting magical features that we have no idea how to build.

Clearly, to Sharps, “vaporware” is a pejorative term. But simply stating that OmniFocus is not vaporware doesn’t alter the fact that OmniFocus is vaporware.

Here are a few definitions for “vaporware”:

  • New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed.1: “Software or hardware that has been advertised but is not yet available to buy, either because it is only a concept or because it is still being written or designed.”

  • American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.: “New software that has been announced or marketed but has not been produced.”

  • Random House Unabridged: “A product, esp. software, that is promoted or marketed while it is still in development and that may never be produced.”

  • The Jargon File: “Products announced far in advance of any release (which may or may not actually take place).”

  • Merriam-Webster: “A computer-related product that has been widely advertised but has not and may never become available.”

  • Last, and least, Wiktionary: “1. Software that has been publicized and has passed its announced release date without being made available; 2. Technology that may be impossible, but is sold or promised as possible.”

Sharps’s “it’s not vaporware” claim is really only tenable given the (rather crummy) Wiktionary definitions.2

The reason vaporware is almost universally considered a pejorative is that even in the best case scenario, where the finished product does ship within a reasonable timeframe and strongly resembles the original promise of the product, it’s seen a predatory marketing practice. In the worst case, where the actual product is some combination of late, non-existent, and significantly divergent from the original promised description (cough, cough, Windows Vista), it leads to disappointment.

Sharps continues:

The reason we’ve been open about the entire process isn’t to generate hype … it was initially to gauge interest and figure out if this product was a good investment for us.

I didn’t say it was hyped. I said it was vaporware.

We are not trying to persuade you to avoid looking for other solutions, and we’re not trying to unreasonably build up your expectations. I don’t consider what we’ve been talking about with OmniFocus to be a pre-announcement, which is something typically designed to generate early interest in a product and hopefully build momentum towards the final release.

First, it’s ludicrous to think that expectations weren’t going to be high. The fewer the details in a pre-announcement, the more room is left for your imagination to fill.

Second, persuading people not to look at competing solutions seems to me exactly why The Omni Group pre-announced OmniFocus. Given the popularity of Kinkless GTD (a set of AppleScripts that allows OmniOutliner Pro to be used as a GTD system) and the popularity of sites like Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders, Omni clearly already has a sense of the interest in GTD software. Hello? Google Trends?

There are a number of competing GTD-oriented task organizers apps in development, including the Mac apps Midnight Inbox (inexcusably, a buggy $40 beta),3 and Actiontastic (free while in public beta). Implicit in any pre-announcement is the idea that “you should wait for this”.

iTV, for example, is pure vaporware. It’s quite a bit less vapory than OmniFocus, in that Steve Jobs showed what the hardware will look like, and showed a demo of the then-current software on stage at the “Showtime” event keynote. But, it’s vaporware nonetheless. Apple typically eschews pre-announcements of any sort; quite the contrary, under Steve Jobs they’ve become renowned for their secrecy. Why the exception for iTV? Clearly because it was something they weren’t ready to announce before Christmas, but whose somewhat imminent arrival they wanted us to be aware of when considering holiday home electronics purchases. (Plus, as I wrote back in September, if Apple hadn’t pre-announced the iTV at the Showtime event, “the lack of an answer to the ‘But how do I play these videos on my TV?’ question would have been more of a distraction from [the non-vaporware] iPod and iTunes announcements…”.)

I have little doubt that iTV is going to ship, and, likewise, given Omni’s track record and reputation, I’m sure they have developers working on OmniFocus and that it too will eventually ship. But just because a pre-announced product isn’t pure hype that never actually sees the light of day — like, say, Duke Nukem Forever, or the “native Mac port” of the suite that I took flak for calling vaporware four years ago — doesn’t mean it isn’t vaporware.

Maybe OmniFocus is going to be a nice app like OmniOutliner or OmniGraffle. Maybe it’s going to be a complex, over-designed monster like OmniPlan. But today, it’s vaporware.

And I’ve got to call bullshit on the idea that Omni’s decision to pre-announce OmniFocus wasn’t at least partially for competitive reasons. Competitive doesn’t necessarily imply nefarious, but it’s disingenuous to pretend it wasn’t competitive at all.

  1. This is the dictionary that ships with Mac OS X 10.4’s Dictionary app. ↩︎

  2. I say Wiktionary’s definitions of “vaporware” are crummy not because (or at least not just because) they don’t match what I think the word means. They’re just wrong. Definition #1 says it only applies to software (false) and must involve a declared release date (false). Definition #2 describes an aspect of a particularly odious form of vaporware, but doesn’t define vaporware itself.

    Of course, given the nature of Wiktionary, it could be rewritten by the time you read this. ↩︎

  3. Midnight Inbox goes so far as to put a big “v1.0” in the web page’s title graphic, despite the fact that the current version is only at 0.9.7. ↩︎