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Opinion: Famous tech myths that just won't die

Here's the scoop on widespread fables about Bill Gates, the iPhone kill switch, Internet2, Al Gore and more

By John Brandon
September 26, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Have you heard this story?

One day, Bill Gates was standing on a street corner, watching the clouds roll by. Absentmindedly, he dropped a $1,000 bill out of his pocket. A bystander noticed and said, "Are you going to pick that up?"

"No, why would I do that?" Gates responded gruffly, and walked away.

OK, fact or fiction?

While my version adds a little color, it's still just a fable.

You can mix and match the details, but the essence of the myth -- which I'll define as anything grossly inaccurate yet widely regarded as true -- is still there.

It's part fantasy, part fabrication, but wholly inaccurate.

Tech myths come in all shapes and sizes: Some contain a morsel of truth, but many of them are so wildly preposterous that it's hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously.

"A myth generally exists to explain the worldview of a group of people," says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst. "This means its intent is to convey an idea but not necessarily the whole truth, and given it's conveyed largely from person to person, the initial story can change a great deal."

At the risk of perpetuating Internet-sized myths even more, here are some of the most famous examples of myths, along with some debunking and comments from those in the know.

Bill Gates dropped a $1,000 bill and didn't bother to pick it up

Bill Gates
Bill Gates is one of the richest people on the planet, but the myth that he would drop a $1,000 bill and not pick it up probably originated in an e-mail scam. (Click on image for more information about this myth.) (Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum)

There's really no factual evidence for this one. If it happened, there's no way to prove it. Given the fact that the U.S. Treasury stopped producing $1,000 bills during World War II and stopped distributing them in 1969, it seems very unlikely Gates would carry one around. Yet, this and many other myths about Bill Gates -- many of them related to e-mail scams -- seem to become memes faster than other mean-spirited tech gossip.

Apparently, Gates is just an easy target who represents how an average guy (albeit one who is obviously very intelligent) can attain fame and fortune in the tech industry. Those who perpetuate the rumors are probably a little jealous. For its part, Microsoft told me that, officially, it doesn't comment on Bill Gates' personal life.

Another Gates myth is that he said "640k ought to be enough for anybody" when talking about an IBM PC's memory in 1981.

The iPhone 3G has a kill switch that Apple can use to disable the device

iphone
Is there a kill switch? (Click on image for more information about this myth.)

As with many myths, this one has a modicum of truth.

The reality, however, is much less interesting than the myth.

You can imagine Steve Jobs cackling to himself as he calls up an unsuspecting iPhone user on a giant screen and then, after pressing a button, watches as the hapless victim struggles to make a phone call.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the kill switch is actually just a way to disable certain unapproved apps that are used for hacking.

The company can't disable the phone at will, and calling software that disables malicious code a "kill switch" seems like a stretch. (I contacted Apple for an official statement, but it hasn't responded yet.)

Internet2 will replace the Internet

Internet2 runs through major swathes of the U.S., but the pipelines are owned by a collective of colleges and universities and have no plans to make it public
Internet2 runs through major swathes of the U.S., but the pipelines are owned by a collective headed by colleges and universities and there are no plans to make it public. (Click on image for more information about this myth.)

Ask a nontechie if something called Internet2 will one day replace Internet1 and that person will surely concur that it makes sense. Internet2 is actually a private network for a group of partners headed by colleges and universities and has no plans to ever go public.

In fact, the costs associated with Internet2 are so exorbitant (some connections run over 1Gbit/sec.) that it would likely take an act of Congress to make it freely available. And even then, the costs to run a public Internet at Internet2 speeds would be too high for ISPs and consumers.

And one further point: If Internet2 were the intended successor to the current Internet, companies like Sprint, Verizon and Clearwire wouldn't be busily laying the foundation for 100Mbit/sec. Internet. They would just wait for Internet2 to arrive.

PC gaming is dying or already dead

EBgames.com lists hundreds of upcoming PC games. True, when the top listing is a prison tycoon game, it doesn't look good. But when EBgames removes the PC gaming section entirely, it might be time to declare the platform dead for games.
EBgames.com lists hundreds of upcoming PC games. True, when the top listing is a prison tycoon game, it doesn't look good. But when EBgames removes the PC gaming section entirely, it might be time to declare the platform dead for games. (Click on image for more information about this myth.)

Every major PC gaming magazine, and a few dead ones, have reported on the demise of PC gaming. It's definitely not a happy time to be a keyboard-and-mouse gamer, especially when a site like VG Chartz, which tracks game sales, doesn't even include the platform. Yet, while PC game sales have declined, there still are millions of Mac and PC gamers around.

EBgames.com lists no fewer than 170 pages of upcoming PC game titles, and franchises such as The Sims (a new Sims 3 version comes out this fall) and Civilization enjoy a loyal following. Casual PC gaming is also exploding, and sites such as Club Penguin and Barbie.com are overloaded with young PC gamers every day.

Apple is working on a MacTablet

Apple has already released a MacTablet -- it's called the iPod Touch -- it's more portable than a tablet PC, plays music and movies, and uses your fingers as an input device.
Apple has already released a MacTablet -- it's called the iPod Touch, which is more portable than a tablet PC, plays music and movies, and uses your fingers as an input device. (Click on image for more information about this myth.)

Ah, yes. The elusive MacTablet. In many ways, the iPod Touch and the iPhone itself are better tablet computers than tablet PCs. They are small enough to carry around all day, can be used to browse the Internet and play music, and respond to finger input.

Microsoft has never gained any traction with its Tablet PC. If you buy one today, it comes with the same software that shipped with units from two or three years ago. It doesn't make sense for Apple to release its own tablet when it knows the market is so minimal and that notebooks are getting smaller and smaller. And as everyone in the tech industry knows, Apple never announces forthcoming products anyway.

Forwarding an e-mail has rewards of some kind

Not even Google Gmail can track the people who forward e-mails -- it would require too much computing power and it's an invasion of privacy. So why do we still do it?
Not even Google Gmail can track the people who forward e-mails -- it would require too much computing power and it's an invasion of privacy. So why do we still do it? (Click on image for more information about this myth.)

I get forwarded e-mails almost every day. "Pass this on to save the whales," says one. "Send this to 100 people you know and win $100," says another.

Despite the rather obvious fact that no ISP could ever track e-mail forwarding from one user to another (partly for privacy reasons, partly for the sheer magnitude of collecting the data) and the fact that e-mail does not, in a technical sense, send forwarding data to any separate company -- even Microsoft -- this myth lives on. There's a mystical nature to chain mail, but one that is not founded on any legitimate dogmas.

Al Gore said he invented the Internet

Al Gore never said he invented the Internet, just that he helped make it more viable.
Al Gore was misquoted. (Click on image for more information about this myth.)

Here's the most famous rumor of them all.

In truth, Al Gore never said he invented the Internet.

What he did say was something to the effect that he encouraged legislation that helped build the foundation of the Internet, as did many other politicians back in the day.

If you have your own favorite tech myth that we missed, send a note to David Ramel and we may include it in a future compilation of reader favorites.

John Brandon is a freelance writer, book author and Computerworld blogger, who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.

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