Vagueware takes over the tech world

Last week Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent out a tweet announcing a partnership with Publicis Groupe, a multinational advertising and PR company. Nadella said they were going to build an AI product called Marcel, as some type of collaboration platform to “empower” the 80,000 employees of Publicis Groupe.

Nadella’s tweet didn’t offer much detail about the new AI platform, other than saying it would provide “intelligent insights.” But Nadella did link to a YouTube video of he and Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sadoun talking about the partnership.

Good, I thought, they’ll explain to me exactly how Marcel will work.

Of course that didn’t happen. The 3-minute video was a series of platitudes between the two men, who each profusely thanked the other for the partnership and said how “excited” and “thrilled” they are. The cultural fit is tremendous, apparently.

The closest we got to specific product detail was Sadoun’s comment that Marcel will help Publicis employees to “learn more,” to “share more,” and to “create more.”

So…is this an AI version of SharePoint? In case you don’t know it, SharePoint is Microsoft’s web-based collaboration software that integrates with Microsoft Office. I’d always found SharePoint to be overly complicated, so perhaps it does need an AI to take control.

Next I googled the official press release for Marcel. It was nearly as bad as the video in its lack of specifics. The only semi-useful information it contained was that Marcel will “leverage” Microsoft Azure AI and Office 365.

Unfortunately, this experience – trying to work out what exactly Microsoft is promoting – is becoming increasingly common in the software industry.

Too many companies and startups these days are vague about the technology in their products. Telling me it will help people learn more or share more is not telling me anything. How specifically will Marcel help someone learn or share? What will the architecture look like? You don’t have to give away any intellectual property. But some level of detail is required, in order to convince me that your product is more than just talk.

I’ve decided to call these products “vagueware” going forward. I define vagueware as software that is only vaguely described and has no discernible features. Think of it as a similar to vapourware, which is when a software company makes big claims about an upcoming product but then ends up never releasing it.

Startups are notorious for announcing vagueware.

Take Magic Leap, a well-funded American startup (US$1.9 billion) which has been promising a revolutionary “mixed reality” headset for the past several years.

In early 2016, Magic Leap released a video showing a virtual whale leaping out of a gymnasium floor, to the astonished reaction of a group of children. Many people came across this video on their daily Web surf and assumed it was an actual product demo. But it later emerged it was just a scripted marketing video.

Journalists from Wired and Rolling Stone have since seen Magic Leap’s mysterious software in action, so apparently there’s a real product behind the hype. So I don’t think it’s vapourware. However it is certainly vagueware, because we don’t yet know how it will work in the real world.

Needless to say, there’s no shortage of vagueware in the cryptocurrency and blockchain market.

Last week I wrote about a local ICO (Initial Coin Offering) which claimed it sold US$80 million of virtual currency. But when I looked closer, there was very little evidence that this company’s products use blockchain technology – which was the main selling point in the ICO. The company’s nearly 50-page white paper is vague and avoids specifics about how its products will use blockchain.

It’s not just blockchain startups coming out with dubious white papers. Kodak is trying to cash in on the cryptocurrency craze with a project called KodakCoin. It’s being marketed as “a photo-centric cryptocurrency to empower photographers and agencies to take greater control in image rights management.”

The announcement caused a large spike in Kodak’s stock price. But on closer inspection, the project lacked specifics. The New York Times lambasted the white paper of KodakCoin, calling it “a 40-page mishmash of marketing buzzwords and vague diagrams.”

A Bloomberg article also ripped into KodakCoin, noting that “there is nothing especially crypto, or blockchain, about this project.” The main point of blockchain technology is to decentralize data. But according to Bloomberg, KodakCoin is simply a “centralized database of photo rights.”

Let’s not forget our own Eric Watson’s venture into vagueware. An American company that Watson part-owns, Long Island Iced Tea Corp, hilariously rebranded itself in December to “Long Blockchain Corp.” Overnight, the stock price tripled.

So how much progress has Watson’s company made on blockchain technologies in the past six weeks? I’m glad you asked, because Long Blockchain Corp issued a formal update to Nasdaq just last week. Ahem, the ex-beverage company announced it has formed “a Blockchain Strategy Committee.”

I presume a white paper is in the works then.