Microsoft recently unveiled Windows 8 (running on an ARM processor, something for another topic of discussion), even though the operating system appears to be well over a year away from release. Apparently Microsoft hasn’t got the message: vapourware doesn’t slow down your competitors anymore. Google appears to have learned their lesson from their original Android announcement (they announced Android in 2007, but the first devices didn’t appear until 2008). Microsoft, however, still has not.
There was a time, back in the day, where a large company like Microsoft (or IBM, HP, DEC, etc) could effectively kill the buzz of a competing product by simply pre-announcing a new version of their own products. A company, deciding to either go up against an established product or to try to create a new product area, would announce their product, often giving a fairly specific release date. Or worse, a rumour would start that this company was going to “shake things up” with a forthcoming announcement. But, shortly after that event, Microsoft (or others) would announce their forthcoming upgrade to the established product, or show off screenshots of their own answer to this new product area (the worst form of vapourware: slide-ware). The result: it effectively kills the upstart, even if the “upstart” might actually be another large company. A company could essentially blunt the competition with a good Powerpoint presentation about something “coming soon”.
Today, though, that doesn’t work anymore. Part of this is because the “upstarts” aren’t pre-announcing something a year or so in advance. They tend to announce “we’re in beta now, release in a couple of months” or in some cases “here it is”. Apple has become very adept at grabbing and holding the consumer’s attention by not only showing off their new products, but having them readily available in a very short (relatively speaking) timeframe. Rumours will constantly float about the Intertoobs weeks or months in advance of an Apple announcement, but those only serve to build the hype without Apple having to commit to something. It also makes it hard for Apple competition to try to respond, because they are afraid to over-react to a rumour. Apple isn’t alone in this regard, although it is the poster child, as Google now takes a similar approach.
So far, Microsoft seems to be one of the few companies left that makes grand announcements far, far in advance of the availability of actual product to the consumer. RIM doesn’t do that as much with Blackberries, but they did stumble into the same trap with Playbook, announcing it about 8 months before shipping units. But they are the exception, and not the rule. Google services now appear fairly rapidly, without much of a “pre-announcement”. Companies like Dell and HP no longer talk about products due out in a year, but typically announce something coming within the next quarter or even the next month. Microsoft seems to be the lone hold-out in a practice that worked fairly well up until the late 1990’s. Since the turn of the century, it hasn’t been all that effective. The world has changed, and the consumer doesn’t care. They don’t fall into the “I’ll wait for the Microsoft version” mindset, putting off their purchase and ignore the “upstart”. They’re content to buy what they can get now, rather than wait (want proof: look at iPhone 4 sales. They continue to climb, despite the expectation of an iPhone 5 coming in the next month or so). A product in their hand now means something, and means more than a supposedly “better” product in the indeterminate future.
Microsoft could take a page out of the book used by Apple, Google and others, and start to announce new product much, much closer to its actual availability date. Their current practice does nothing to take the wind out of the sails (or sales) of their current competition, and merely makes them look foolish and outdated.