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What is Vaporware, and how to spot it in technology news articles
by Olivier Blanchard | November 16, 2018
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Three things get under my skin in the technology space: Lazy journalism, tech evangelists, and vaporware.

Lazy journalism isn’t specific to the tech world, but it exists in the tech space too.

I don’t really know what qualifies tech evangelists and futurists to opine about the future of tech or why they have a platform. I never see any at analyst events, where tech companies introduce and explain their new wares. I have yet to have a conversation with one that convinced me that they had even a rudimentary understanding of the current state of core technologies, from wireless mobility and AI to mixed reality and autonomous vehicles. (I would feel marginally more optimistic about the validity of their prognostications about “the future” if they showed an interest in where these technologies are today, in the real world.) It’s easy to “predict” that flying cars and empathetic caretaker robots are coming. All you need to do is line up a few sci-fi movies on Netflix and market yourself to a conference whose speaker vetting team isn’t all that picky. The problem though, is that futurism and tech evangelism tend to sell fantasy, not reality, and when lazy journalism intersects with that kind of professional imagineering project, what you end up with is an amplification of make-believe nonsense.

You may recall rumors about the revolutionary AR-focused iPhone that was going to reinvent the mobile industry in the fall of 2017. What we got instead were the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X, which were great devices but didn’t revolutionize anything, and weren’t AR-centric. For months leading up to Apple’s fall event that year though, that rumor, started by a tech evangelist and spread by journalists who should have known better, made the rounds of the technology and business press. Those of us who actually live and breathe technology were deeply skeptical about these magical claims, and weren’t all that surprised when the entire thing turned out to have been false. But how many people fell for it? How many journalists and publications participated in that particular wave of nonsense? And why was it so easy for a tech evangelist to a) so easily be fooled in the first place and b) be so trusted that even a claim as wild as the one he made wasn’t immediately shut down? (Skimming patent applications and chatting with adjacent technology vendors would have debunked the claim inside of three hours.)

And so, this brings us to another scourge: vaporware. What is vaporware, I hear you ask? If you Google it, you will get the following definition: “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.” (A more aggressive definition defines vaporware as something that is promoted and marketed but never actually produced. My take on vaporware is somewhat more flexible as to the outcome: In the context of futurism and technology rumors, vaporware doesn’t exist yet but is likely to exist someday.)

When you combine vaporware, tech evangelists, and lazy journalism, what you end up with is a maelstrom of technology-themed fake news.

It is in this frame of mind that I came across two bits of vaporware “news” this week that made me flashback to the aforementioned invisible iPhone incident of 2016, and led me to write this piece.

 

Dubious Rumor #1: “AR glasses” are coming in 1-2 years.

Huawei claims that it will release AR glasses sometime in the next two years. So does Apple. I don’t find either of those possibilities likely.

First, let’s address the contentious use of the term “glasses” instead of “goggles.” Could Huawei and Apple realistically introduce AR goggles in 2020? Absolutely. Microsoft’s Hololens and Magic Leap One are examples of AR goggle form factors. Goggles, not glasses though. Headsets, not glasses.  This isn’t just a semantic detail. The goal of AR goggle design is to eventually miniaturize the tech enough to offer users AR glasses that look and feel like glasses. So saying that Company X will be releasing “AR glasses” next  year seems deliberately misleading. Case in point, look at the photos used in this piece, and this one, teasing Apple’s AR glasses. This type of article promises glasses, not headsets or goggles. Do I expect Apple and Huawei to release some of the best AR glasses on the market once technology catches up to that promise? Absolutely. In fact, I already anticipate Apple to have the coolest frame designs in the category. It’s a given. Just… probably not a year or two from now.

Let’s consider some practical reasons why we won’t be seeing actual AR glasses like the one in the above concept photos in 2019, or 2020, or even 2021:

  • Where do you hide the battery?
  • Where do you hide the GPU and/or SOC?
  • Where do you hide the wireless modules and antennas?

More on that in a bit. The point is that none of these technology components can currently be miniaturized enough to fit into a legitimate eyeglass-sized form factor, and likely won’t be before 2022, if not 2025. Case in point: Magic Leap, HTC, and Qualcomm are indeed working on ways to integrate 5G modems into AR headsets (as AR glasses will require fast, reliable data transfer speeds), but, given the current pace of innovation, it will likely be more than just two years before AR headset form factors can start moving towards looking like legitimate AR glasses.

So when Huawei announces that it will have AR glasses next year, which would be equivalent to a 3-6 year evolutionary leap packed into only 12-18 months, don’t just take that kind of statement as gospel. Challenge it. Look for the caveat. Do a little bit of fact-checking. Chances are that either the timeline is wrong or the product description is.

 

Dubious rumor #2: Intel’s next 5G modem will be powering iPhones in 2020. 

Someone at The Verge is under the impression that Intel’s next 5G Modem might somehow power iPhones in 2020. Interesting theory, but problematic on several fronts.

Intel is a pretty solid company that does many things well, but it has struggled on the cellular modem front, and I think it may be a few years still before Intel catches up to cellular modem leader Qualcomm. Intel engineers are obviously working hard on this, and I didn’t wake up today looking to beat up on Intel, so let me explain why I think this isn’t likely without throwing too much shade:

First, since it appears that Intel may not be the modem supplier for iPhones in 2020 and beyond, any claim that iPhones will be powered by Intel modems (5G or not) is, while within the realm of possibilities, neither here nor there. I am not sure who is pitching this Intel 5G modems powering 2020 iPhones story to whom, and Intel may have nothing to do with it, but we can safely apply a fat grain of salt to this particular 5G modem “prediction.”

Second, 5G is considerably more complicated than 4G, and since Intel has, thus far, struggled to deliver a reliable top tier 4G modem on pace with Qualcomm, it is with a healthy dose of skepticism that I ponder the likelihood of successfully-tested and thoroughly debugged 5G modem from Intel in 2019, or in time for a 2020 iPhone release. It could happen, but given the engineering obstacles that both Intel and Apple will have to clear in a very short amount of time to make this happen, and with Intel’s fumble with the XMM8060 (its first attempt at a 5G modem) in our collective rear-view mirror, that timeline feels a bit optimistic to me.

Third, the 5G modem in question doesn’t technically exist yet. Per Intel’s own product page, assuming that its newly “accelerated” rollout is successful, it won’t be available until late 2019:

“The XMM 8160 5G will support peak speeds up to 6 gigabits per second, making it three to six times faster than the latest LTE modems available today. It will be available in the second half of 2019 and will deliver the features and experiences to accelerate widespread 5G adoption.”

Will: Future tense. Not yet real. (Despite the above photo showing what an XMM 8160 may someday look like.) How can anyone claim that a modem that doesn’t exist yet will power iPhones two years from now? Where does a feature story like this even come from? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t doubt for a second that Intel will develop a successful top tier 5G modem soon. I just don’t know if they will get there in time to convince Apple to equip their 2020 iPhones with it. (It isn’t as simple as just plugging it in.)

 

How to spot vaporware, lazy journalism, and futurism in articles:

Below are some tips to help you separate tech fact from tech fiction.

1. Demand proof: As my peer Prakash Sangam suggests, “believe less than 50% of what you are told, about 60% of what you are shown, and almost 100% of what you can hold in your hand and experience yourself.” My version of that is a bit more severe: Believe nothing until the claim can either be successfully proven to me or validated by qualified specialists. That’s it.

2. Vet your sources: Any technology breakthrough announced or predicted by a “futurist” and/or “tech evangelist” is most likely BS. Get your news from qualified professionals with legitimate access, not from random bloggers, social media personalities, and motivational speakers.

3. When in doubt, Google it: Do a Google search of any news item announcing a “revolutionary breakthrough” in anything. How many legitimate news organizations are covering it? How are they covering it? What are analysts saying about it? This takes just a few minutes.

Rule of thumb: If a “big” tech story is only getting picked up by one or two legitimate news outlets, consider that a bad sign. If most of the coverage from that story is limited to obscure tech blogs and Reddit threads, consider that a bad sign too. Escape the echo chamber. Look for validation from the analyst community and professional news organizations.

4. Trust your gut: Technology advances that you suspect will take 5 to 10 years to take shape do not miraculously happen in 6-18 months. If something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. Case in point: If the leaders in AR innovation are just now getting bulky headsets to work properly, a company that has never been a leader in AR is probably not going to magically leapfrog over them to deliver innovation a few months from now that they themselves will not be able to achieve for years.

5. Use what you know: When in doubt, break a technology down into its basic parts: Power supply and management, computing, connectivity, and inputs.

Then, use what you know: Your basic knowledge of how your laptop and phone work can help you gauge how long a battery of a certain size will last when in use, how much room is required for advanced computing power to realistically perform a multitude of complex tasks, how wireless connectivity works and doesn’t work in the real world, and how information is gathered by or entered into a device. You don’t need to be an analyst to do this. These are the only foundations you need to figure out if a bold tech claim about a “revolutionary” IoT technology is real.

For AR glasses, the process is simple: Pick up your phone. Feel its weight. Now imagine that weight being applied to glasses on your face. Are we there yet? No, obviously. Now consider your phone’s volume. How do you pack all of your phone’s guts into eyeglass frames? You can’t? Okay. What parts do you give up? Now pick up a pair of glasses and study them. Where do you hide the eye-tracking modules, the cameras that need to capture your surroundings, the projectors? Once you’ve added all of those components, will your glasses still look like glasses? Antenna placement is easy, but where do you put the radio modules, the GPU, the battery, the graphics card? How do you cool it all down when in use?

Now look at the claim that AR glasses will be ready in less than two years again. Look at the kinds of product images attached to those claims. Does any of it still seem likely? Are you starting to get a sense for what that sort of content really is about?

You don’t have to be an expert to do this. Use what you know, then apply that to bold technology claims. Either the pieces fit or they don’t. Only by learning to be practically skeptical can we learn to become better at separating science fact from science fiction, and real news from fake news.

I hope this helps.

 

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