Tech predictions gone wrong

A romp through some of the worst tech predictions from people who should have known better

The computer industry and the customers it serves have proven to be extraordinarily slippery during the past 45 years.

Though there have been plenty of mundanely accurate predictions of market share, technology development and adoption rates, the predictions that stick in the mind are those that demonstrate spectacular misjudgment, misunderstanding, overly optimistic hyperbole, self-delusion or wishful thinking.

At the time they're made, predictions that are grossly mistaken are rarely recognized as gaffes of historic proportions.

To remedy that, we've listed not only some of the better predictions, but also the changes that demonstrated that even the giants who bestride the computer world like colossi, or like robber barons, don't always know exactly what they're talking about.

"I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse." -- Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, inventor of Ethernet, 1995.

Metcalfe was trying to make the point that the Internet was growing like a weed, that the controls being developed to keep it stable and secure were pathetically weak compared to the threats they were intended to counter, and that even the physical topography of the internetworks themselves were too extended and undefended to be reliable as a platform for e-commerce, business applications and other failure-intolerant uses.

It was a bad prediction in that the Internet didn't stop working. It was a great one in that the Internet has been in a constant state of catastrophe ever since.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Most of the people who recognize this quote and know why it's ironic now personally own or use more than five computers. IBM was (kind of accidentally) primarily responsible for building and popularizing the machines that allowed the PC and LAN revolutions to take place.

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication." -- Western Union internal memo, 1876

Amen. Another "bad" prediction that is still entirely true even though our voice communication devices now have immense computing power, travel with us everywhere and connect to the world using reliable, secure cellular networks. Despite all our advances, the quality of a telephone conversation still depends on the human on the other end.

"Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers of the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh one and a half tons." -- Popular Mechanics, March 1949

It's not really fair to pick on some anonymous Popular Mechanics writer from 1949, considering the fact that just about everyone who has built and sold prediction-busting technology in the decades since then has consistently underestimated the speed at which other people would improve upon their innovations. Including this prediction does provide the opportunity to open your laptop and count the vacuum tubes to see how close to right tech predictions tend to be.

"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." -- Ken Olsen, founder, Digital Equipment Corp., 1977, in a speech to the World Future Society

Computer? Nope, not anymore. Tablet, smartphone, smart appliances with embedded operating systems, connected TVs and multimedia centers? Sure. Computers? Not so much anymore.

"Within five years, I predict [the tablet] will be the most popular form of PC sold in America." -- Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, in a 2002 speech at Comdex introducing the Windows Tablet PC and its (required) stylus

With this statement, Gates popularized the prediction that is right in principle and disastrously wrong in detail. Microsoft and Apple had both tried repeatedly to create a practical, popular tablet, failing completely until the first iPad shipped in 2010. Tablets are currently selling at a rate of about 17 million per quarter. Of the 117 million units that IDC predicts will ship this year, only 1% run a Microsoft operating system. IDC predicts that the introduction of Windows 8 (Windows RT for tablets) will quadruple that rate. That means Microsoft's market share could surge to 4% -- while Apple sits comfortably at 60%-plus.

"The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful." -- Steve Jobs, in Rolling Stone, Dec. 3, 2003

Apple launched the iTunes music player and the iPod it supported in 2001; it launched the iTunes online music service in 2007. By 2012, iTunes held 64% of the music subscription market, equaling 29% of all music sales in any medium, generating a projected $8 billion in revenue for Apple.

"Two years from now, spam will be solved." -- Bill Gates, 2004 World Economic Forum

Spam still consistently makes up more than 90% of all Internet email, though botnet takedowns during 2011 dropped that number to 71%. According to online security firm Incapsula, 51% of all Internet traffic now comes from non-humans, once you add up all the spam, traffic from DDoS apps, botnets, content scrapers, search engines, ad servers and network overhead from DNS and other address servers.

"This antitrust thing will blow over." -- Bill Gates, at a meeting of Intel executives, 1995

The "antitrust thing," did blow over. Eventually. It started with a 1991 FTC investigation of whether Microsoft was abusing its monopoly power over operating systems, ended with a settlement and consent decree 1994, reopened a short time later for charges of violating the consent decree, went to trial in 1998, and concluded with a final (negative) judgment in 2002.

In its 2008 annual report, Microsoft wrote that the U.S. Department of Justice and 18 states participating in that "antitrust thing" put constraints on Microsoft's business practices and marketing of its operating systems -- constraints analysts credit with helping to pull Microsoft out of its dominant position and making the computer business more competitive.

"Apple is already dead." -- Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, 1997

For the undead, Apple is doing well. It owns the tablet market and holds a big chunk of the highly diverse smartphone market. In August, Apple became the most valuable company in history with a market capitalization of more than $620 billion, nipping previous record holder Microsoft, which hit its peak in 1999 and is now worth about $260 billion.

"There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States." -- T. Craven, FCC commissioner, 1961

Really? Someone still believed that in 1961? Sputnik went up in 1957 with a transmitter that could relay phone calls. In 1960, the U.S. had passive phone relays in orbit from the Echo satellite and the first active repeater capability from the Courier 1B. In 1962 -- a year after Craven's dismissal of technology already functioning in orbit -- NASA put Telstar's Relay 1 satellite into orbit to relay calls across the Pacific, effectively spanning the globe. The "F" in "FCC" apparently doesn't stand for foresight.

"Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years." -- Alex Lewyt, president, Lewyt Corp vacuum company

Granted, nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners are not "information technology." Still, anyone predicting that Americans would not only want nuclear reactors in their homes, but want them to power breakdown-prone devices that spend most of their time being neglected in a closet (where they could plot meltdowns) deserves a special place in history.

Next: Opinion: Where will IT be in 5 years?

Fogarty writes about enterprise IT. You can follow him on Twitter (@KevinFogarty).


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon