Delete: A Design History of Computer Vapourware
by Paul Atkinson
Bloomsbury Press, London, 2013
256 pp., illus. 150 col. Paper, $42.95
Reviewed by Hannah Drayson
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth
This book provides a catalogue of computing products, from mainframes to personal and mobile computers, that never made it, or were never intended to make it, to market. Fully illustrated in colour, it includes many images of prototype products from the portfolios of the industrial designers who worked to design them. Despite its focus on product rather than interface design, the book sets this evidence within the wider context of the imaginary and social construction of these devices, and through a number of case studies illustrates how vapourware technology can be understood to both illustrate and influence the construction of technologies such as the computer.
Narratives of technological obsolescence and apparent failure expand our awareness of how the meanings and uses of technologies develop and change. The 'useless' Honeywell Kitchen Computer, a machine that could generate the menu for dinner, was built as a marketing tool. It was featured in the Neiman Marcus 1969 Christmas Catalogue, which would annually include fantastically ostentatious gifts as a marketing tool. The idea of a 'kitchen computer' was at the time laughable, but in line with Honeywell's existing advertising strategy of depicting futuristically styled, impressionistically photographed, but impractical computers in its print advertising, in order to attract customers to more usefully housed units. As Atkinson tells us, the Kitchen Computer, while presented and understood as parody, still exercised an influence on discussions within the computing industry. The then vice president of engineering at Digital Equipment Corporation responded to the advert in a memo that listed the multiple domestic uses for computing and argued that it was time for his industry to seriously consider the domestic market for computing (p.51).
Vapourware then, as seen here, is a technological form whose function is not to be found in its apparent use, but as a form of storytelling where any fantastic elements are hidden. Another example, IBM's Leapfrog, ostensibly a desktop office computer, was ground-breaking for its size and form, and included a detachable and portable tablet screen and pen. What it really was, however, was the result of a project to refresh IBM's image as an innovator by creating working prototypes of a 'next paradigm' computer; the Leapfrog was a functioning piece of design fiction. During the initial phases of the Leapfrog project, the team had identified the technologies that would be available years later when the machine would be ready to produce, such as flatscreen technologies, and then designed around what they thought would be possible, rather than what currently was, all in order to produce a product that would represent IBM in the design press and trade shows as an innovator operating at the cutting edge. As a fully working consumer product, the device was too expensive to take to market.
One might question the rationale of depicting with such care the boxes that failed to house various pieces of computing equipment, particularly in later sections, the book contains many carefully staged images of devices that were never manufactured. Chip technologies, interfaces and paradigms for interaction are perhaps more important to understanding the development of home and mobile computing. However, Atkinson's introduction points out that by its nature, vapourware must not only appear feasible, but immanent, and this is where the techniques of product, and industrial and graphic design come into play. In addition to this, as he notes in his introduction, it is in records and portfolios of industrial designers, that the evidence for the existence of these proposed products survives, not in company records, and thus they offer valuable evidence for histories that have otherwise fallen into rumour. Combined with images from marketing materials, the importance of the rather practical application of industrial design to the production of these fantasy prototypes becomes clear, reminding us that computers, particularly as consumer products, necessarily emerge from an interdisciplinary context that combine industrial and product design, marketing and computing, just some of the many forces that converge within the creation of new technological products.