Forbes Opinion Piece Questioning Microsoft’s Decision to Preview Its Quantum “Vaporware” is Inconceivable

Okay, okay. I immediately regret using #fakenews. But it’s cluttering up my Facebook and Twitter feed these days, and I just hate—and I mean hate—the term “vaporware.” That, my friends, is what today’s post is about. You see, earlier this week a Forbes columnist published a piece entitled “Microsoft’s Quantum Computing Vaporware.” That’s some pretty happening click bait, but two can play that game. While I have never been Microsoft’s biggest fan, I will defend any quantum computing effort I see unfairly slammed.

What the author actually said in his lead paragraph was:

Like all theories, however, it remains to be seen whether a topological approach to quantum computing will actually work. For now, Microsoft’s “topological quantum computer” is vaporware.

He then went on to discuss the “fawnware” approach to press coverage of Microsoft’s Q#.  I suppose like this example here.

You Keep Using that Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

I don’t want to get too old school on you kids with your loose language and your casual usage, but let’s talk about what vaporware actually means. From Wikipedia:

In the computer industry, vaporware . . . is a product . . . that is announced to the general public but is never actually manufactured nor officially cancelled.

I know not everyone uses the term that way these days, but that’s what it used to mean. So let’s be fair to Microsoft. If they don’t release a quantum computing development environment in the next 3-5 years, then by all means, call them out. Vaporware it is.

Until then, I’ve got three reasons we should be applauding Microsoft instead of booing them.

1. Developers need tools—any tools—to start wrapping their heads around quantum software development.

Developers are not in any way prepared for the changes that are about to happen. We need tools, and lots of them, for every form of quantum computer you can think of. Releasing a simulator isn’t vaporware, because there’s an actual simulator.  I get to play with a new language and learn how to develop for one type of quantum computer. That has value. Microsoft isn’t asking me to pay for this. They aren’t making me jump through hoops to get it. They’re simply saying, “Hey, we built something you might find useful. Try it out.” Besides, IBM, Google, 1Qbit, and Rigetti Computing (among others) have released similar software without catching the same flak.

2. We need industry leaders to be bold, and Microsoft needs to be a part of that leadership for a healthy quantum ecosystem to emerge.

Look, Google said earlier this year they would prove “quantum supremacy” in 2017. Unless it’s sitting wrapped under my Christmas tree, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Should we be gathered outside of their offices with torches? Of course not. Give them a break. They’re doing some amazing, groundbreaking work. Besides, developers miss deadlines all the time. Quantum is in a major hype cycle to boot, which can magnify any minor issue. Ever had your marketing or sales department make promises your engineers couldn’t keep?

3. If we use the author’s standard, then all quantum computing  is vaporware.

This guy’s making me rethink my career choice. (Not really.) By his standard, I should be filling out job applications, stat! (I’ll get right on that.) I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent with quantum computers lately, but the field just isn’t far enough along in it’s development to be held to such a standard. Quantum computing is fun and exciting because it’s an experimental game being played in the next wild west of computing. Would you have gone to a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1976 and told Wozniak his work was vaporware?

I’m not saying that tech reporters shouldn’t be more critical. I agree that there are a lot of fanboys writing puff pieces. But a quantum computer is not a new pair of ear buds or a high-end laptop. It’s an experimental machine based on incredibly difficult science and engineering. The community doesn’t even fully agree on what a quantum computer is yet. (That’s why I’ve been pushing the standards effort with the IEEE.) We don’t need unnecessary stirring of the pot when we’re all trying to support each other and bring the community (and the external industry) together.

The author closes by asking, “If the press won’t ask tech’s hard questions, who will?” Well when it comes to quantum computing at least, look no further than the interviews on Yes, we will be interviewing someone from Microsoft. And yes, we will ask some tough questions about Q# and their topological quantum Computer.