The North Wind Doth Blow
Hype is IT
It is everywhere you turn. From a politicians glorious promises to the luscious images on TV commercials no one in the present connected world can escape its all-encompassing fangs. It is “hype”. Hype is the presentation of almost fiction as almost fact.
Hype is hard to describe or define. Hype is not the truth, yet not quite lies. Hype is the overbearing promotion of some entity where the stated attributes, though marginally true, are not quite as stated.
Hype surrounds us everywhere. When President Bush says he is going to stamp out terrorism around the world, he is somewhat genuine and honest, yet we all know that the outcome cannot be so rosy. When an Internet company says they have a product that will transform your boring life into a new experience full of excitement, hold on to your pocketbook. When an advertisement says some little pills can cure cancer or revive your aging body, it is always bogus.
The examples of hype, even successful hype in the technological world is nauseatingly common. One of the biggest sources is of course, the software giant Microsoft. Every year or two, quite predictably, Microsoft rolls out yet another version of their Windows operating system. Even more predictably, about six months before the product is ready, the hype starts flowing. The new features are touted to be startling, indispensable and totally innovative. It always turns out that they are nothing of the sort. Yet, we fall for it.
Well, it is quite well known by now that each new version of Windows is somewhat of an “upgrade” over the last one. The new version has bug fixes and incrementally added features. Little things those are nice to have, but far from essential. Yet, Microsoft unashamedly hypes the product. The trade presses swing into action permeating the hype. It becomes the talk of the town. Everyone seems to talk about the “new and improved” something-or-the-other that this version has. Soon, people cannot wait to get the new thing. Finally it arrives and it is the same old thing in slightly newer clothes.
The point is, we know that it is all hype, yet we fall for it. Last month Microsoft released its latest one called Windows XP. Like all previous versions, XP is an upgrade. An upgrade, in computer lingo is a new variant of an old toy that has some added capabilities and added features. But an “upgrade” sounds so un-cool, so unexciting, so Microsoft hates to admit that an upgrade is an upgrade.
In February 2001, Microsoft first publicly started talking about the advent of XP, and the reporters started talking about “yet another upgrade from Microsoft”. Instantly the hype machine kicked into high gear. The vice-president of the new products division, Jim Allchin stated, “It is not a simple upgrade, it’s like a total lifestyle upgrade”. That is pure unadulterated and brilliant hype. What does XP stand for? Microsoft says, XP stands for “experience”. Isn’t that cute! Does it not add insult to injury? Yet, XP probably will go on the record books as one huge retail success. Hype works.
The XP story seems never ending. The official launch of XP was hype-extravaganza on steroids. A gospel choir sang “America the Beautiful” while Bill Gates stood alongside Mayor Guliani in front of an audience of 2,000 in Times Square, and said, “There was only one place to launch Windows XP, right here in the heart of New York.” At the same time, in London, Steve Balmer clad in a Windows XP baseball jacket, said that XP will "take the PC industry to new heights."
A web site cropped up (www.theitquestion.com) where people could theorize what IT was. The ingenuity uncovered therein was far more potent than the hype. Some guesses were purely innovative: a hydrogen-powered hovercraft; a toilet that produces no waste; a cow that gives ready made yogurts, milkshakes, ice-creams and does not produce methane gas. Some guesses were tongue in cheek: a combination of a dufulator and a ramtibulating ponertavator (when you combine these, life, as we know it, changes); a toaster oven; a mute button for your girlfriend or wife while you are watching the game; a candy wafer with the alcohol content of three martinis. Some were almost quite the truth: IT is a big disappointment about to happen—so much hype is never a good thing; whatever it is, it will probably be damn expensive. The most well thought out guess was, IT is a motor that runs off human waste. People will be stunned and remark, "This shit really works".
Then IT was unveiled; on the morning of December 3rd. IT has a new name, “Segway”. Segway is a “personal transporter”. It is a thing that’s weighs about 60 lbs (24kg), has two wheels and runs on batteries. Unlike a scooter the wheels are side by side (not front and back). Using some gyroscopic tricks and innovative electronics, Segway is self-balancing. The rider stands on a platform between the wheels, and holds on to a handle sticking up from the platform. The gyroscopes make sure that the thing does not topple; the inventors say it is impossible to fall down. The Segway can feel the rider lean—if you lean forward, it goes forward, if you lean back it goes back. You can learn how to maneuver and turn quite easily. It is quite interesting and maybe even useful.
In about a year, the consumer version will go on sale for $3,000. According to the hype, Segway will replace the car as the transportation vehicle of choice. The cities will get transformed from a jungle of big polluting cars to people zipping along on Segways, making the world a safer place to live in. Why do we need a 2,000lb behemoth called a car, to transport one or two 200lb people when you can do it with a Segway?
Well, reality is not so rosy. It is not sexy, it is not sleek. It looks like an unhandsome cross between a lawn mower and a child's toy. It can only go as fast as 12mph (21 kmph), and has a range of 12 miles (21 km) between battery charges. You cannot carry anything more than a briefcase on it. What about hitting a brick on the sidewalk, will that not topple it? Then there is weather. Is it practical to go commute to work when it is raining (and most cities in the US, it rains most of the time)? What about snow? Wind? Cold? Heat? Would car-loving citizens give up the luxury of a automobile for the sake of a tiny, stunted, underpowered, slow, low-range, self-balancing scooter? What about shopping, what about carrying the kids? What about a sick person? What about, oh well, most of us will not sell our cars.
It is hard to find an example of hype living up to its billing. Yet the examples of irritating unsuccessful hype are all pervasive. Audrey the Internet appliance was hyped to change the way we live. Audrey went away. The Ebook was a tablet kind of thing that would store books and then we could read them by carrying the Ebook (and replacement batteries) around. Consumers stuck to real books. In the mid-90’s the ultimate invention was “interactive-TV”. This was TV that you could interact with. You could change outcomes of the movie you are watching depending upon your mood or your tastes. You could maneuver the programs according to what you wanted to see. Some large companies spent fortunes building the hardware to distribute interactive TV over cable. The hype did not work in this case, the innovators did not know that TV watchers are couch potatoes, who want to be spoon fed, and do not want to interact with anything or anyone.
The worst kind of hype in the software industry has been labeled “vaporware”. Vaporware is software that does not exist. It used to be a cool marketing ploy in the 80’s and part of the 90’s. Suppose company A is selling a software package that does X. Company B sends out a rumor that they are on the verge of coming up with something that does X much better, faster and cheaper. In fact the product from B will not just do X, it will do the laundry, the cooking and mow the lawn. Of course, people decide not to buy from A as very soon B will make the product from A quite outdated. The vaporware problem almost reached crisis level. The rumors were very plausible and believable and caused plenty of harm. Thankfully, vaporware was a victim of its success, as people got too skeptical of tall claims.
While vaporware is dead, hype is not. Hype was invented when the first man told the first woman how wonderful life would be if she married him (even though she had no other choice). Yet, even today, we live in hype. All of us can see hype from miles away, without glasses, yet we fall for it. Hype works.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha