V is for Vapourware. Or vaporware, as it is more commonly spelt, since so much of it is produced in the US. The principal attribute of vapourware is that it isn't actually produced at all - quite the opposite. It usually doesn't exist - except in the fevered imaginations of marketing departments.

Vapourware arises when executives within company A see their competitors in company B getting a lead on them by selling (or announcing) a new computer or program or modem (or whatever) which has louder bells and more piercing whistles. The natural reaction is "We'll do better", prompting company A's executives to tell the media that their forthcoming Bells & Whistles version 2.0 will be shipped to customers later this quarter. Or next year. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, everyone else is wondering how they'll ever meet any sort of deadline. The product is almost always late. Sometimes, it just never appears.

Announcing vapourware can also be a strategic decision, the idea being to persuade dithering customers not to buy a rival's existing product, but to hang on in the expectation of something better, faster and cheaper. What they usually get is something which contains "extra features", making it slightly slower and more expensive. Hence the alternative name for vapourware - "Today's Product Tomorrow."

At present, nobody can match Microsoft's awesome control of the vapourware market. Any Microsoft product that is released on time is a media event in itself. Windows 95 was a classic example, being repeatedly delayed - but hyped to high heaven as a result. (It could be argued that Windows 95's years of pre-publicity were a pre-emptive strike against IBM's OS/2 operating system.) The Microsoft Network was also touted, before it actually became available, as something which would put other online services such as CompuServe to shame. Instead, Microsoft has had to rethink MSN quite substantially in the past year.

The trouble with vapourware is that it can make you, the consumer, delay purchases of things you need today. But almost every new product in the computer world is only an incremental improvement on its predecessor. If you truly need something now, get it. If you want to wait until the "improved" version comes along, you should ask yourself whether you need it at all - or whether you haven't just been sucked into buying for the sake of it.