Vapourware – Like a Needle in a Haystack

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Vapourware describes a product, usually software, that has been announced by a developer during or before its development, if there is significant doubt whether the product will actually be released. It is software which at best is still in development, and at worst is no more than an interesting concept in the mind of someone at the organisation. Vapourware is sometimes announced with great fanfare as a spoiling tactic to hurt sales of a competitors already launched product.

Maybe you don’t know, but in many parts of the world the internet is not free. It is not open. Many countries have, or are considering, filtering the internet. The reason for this is always cited as “protecting the public” or even just “child porn” (‘Think of the Children!’ defence). Make no mistake; filtering the internet is a bad thing, and it is coming to a country near you – the USA, Australia and UK are both considering ‘net neutrality’ bills, and the continued tightening of digital rights (think the Digital Economy Act) pushes us one step closer to a constrained internet, an internet which is no longer the last true bastion of free speech.

…but this article isn’t about that. This article is a warning. Vapourware. The definition is above. So, Matt, why did you launch into a tirade against internet law? Well, because the people of the world have been had; specifically the people of Iran. I’m talking about ‘Haystack‘.

Haystack was a fantastic story. The myth – a young, bright, entrepreneurial and morally-guided man, Austin Heap, heard the suffering of the people of Iran, and developed an encrypted proxy network, one which would bypass the filtering imposed upon the innocent Iranian people.
The fact – no software officially released to date; the beta has leaked to many Iranians but is full of basic security holes. Despite much money donated to the project, it fails and in fact risks the security of millions of Iranians, both online but also from state police.

Austin Heap, the creator, was being lauded in the press, with absolutely no software credentials to back this up. He conjured false hope about a solution better than any currently available. He even claims that Haystack is better for privacy than the Tor onion network. He refused outside, open-source development, under the guise of preventing the Iranian authorities from breaking his system. However, when the executable finally found its way into the hands of some reputable software programmers, it was clear that the product was just not what it should have been (link is to Danny O’Brien’s twitter feed. He also wrote an article about Haystack here). Even their main developer resigned.

Austin Heap was quoted as saying:

“I hope we are ready to take on the next country. We will systematically take on each repressive country that censors its people. We have a list. Don’t piss off hackers who will have their way with you. A mischievous kid will show you how the Internet works.”

I think he fell victim to his own hype, and his own motto.

A lesson indeed in the dangers of getting wrapped up in an idea. I doubt that the Dragons from Dragon’s Den would have invested in his idea. An idea is NOT a product, not a result. Ideas are easy; the idea of creating a proxy system for repressed regimes is an easy idea. The reality is all the steps in between, the lives you are risking along the way, the code and its robustness. One error can spell doom, and it seems for Haystack, this might have happened.

So… Diaspora anyone? Yeah, this is still vapourware. Diaspora purports to be a better Facebook – fixing the much-maligned privacy concerns in Facebook, removing the trash, making it clean. You can host your own Diaspora network, with its own look and feel, but all the Diaspora networks can interact and share information in a controlled way. And, yet again, it was hyped to an insane degree, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, for a mere idea.

Even at the time of announcing I was dubious. Now Facebook is everywhere, it is tightly integrated into so much of the web at the minute. Diaspora might now be a step backwards. Heck, Facebook might even be getting into the phone OS game now. But Diaspora has now released the first elements of its source code. It at least has one advantage over Haystack – it is open-source. Bugs and problems can be fixed by the internet swarm. But, so far, it has more problems than fixes.

Diaspora may still come out clean in the wash. Haystack, doubtful. The point is, don’t pay people for an idea. Or at least, if you are going to pay someone for an idea that won’t happen, pay me. But don’t get your hopes up on software that might never materialise. And, Austin Heap, don’t get up the hopes of an entire country, and don’t release to them insecure software that might end up getting them in severe trouble for using it.

Peace, out!

-Matt


 

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