Some Shockingly Bad Prognostications
Sometimes even smart people make dumb predictions, and predicting the future of technology seems to be an area most rife with risk. As technology speeds ahead and inventors devise products that challenge most human imagination, it's no wonder we sometimes get it wrong.
So it may come as no surprise that technology futurist Jack Shaw revels in sharing the stories of the worst tech predictions of all time, even as he delivers his view of the technological future.
I heard Jack speak at a conference about a year ago, and both his presentation and the way he leavened it with brief recounting of some shockingly bad prognostications stuck with me.
Looking back, I can see why. In his presentations, he demonstrates to the audience that our technological future might seem unbelievable, but we'd better be prepared for it.
As business leaders, let that be a lesson to you the next time you roll your eyes over some ridiculous-sounding new technology: It could very well be the next big thing.
A Little Wishful Thinking? RE:The Invention of the Telephone
Sir William Pierce, who had business to lose to the new invention, was not alone in his dismissal of the telephone, first commercially patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.
Among those who dismissed the new technology: the Western Union Telegraph Company president who turned down the opportunity to buy Bell's patent outright.
"An internal Western Union memo dated 1876 stated: 'This "telephone" has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The devise is inherently of no value to us,'" Eric Chaline recalled in his book, History's Worst Predictions.
Another skeptic, U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, upon seeing a demonstration in 1876, reportedly declared, "It's a great invention but who would use it anyway?"
Even the inventor had a limited view of the telephone's future impact, confidently predicting, "The telephone is such an important invention that one day every town will have one."
Source: Eric Chaline, pp 76-79.
More Wishful Thinking? RE: The Invention of Television
As with predictions about the telephone, the worst predictions came from those who had allegiance to a technology threatened by the new advance.
Zanuck, a Hollywood studio boss, made the mistake of failing to imagine how the fledgling technology would improve, compared to film.
Meanwhile, radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube, Lee De Forest, declared: "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibilty, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming."
Source: Eric Chaline, pp 149-153.
As well, Mary Somerville, a pioneer of radio educational broadcasts in 1948, made a similar mistake when she quipped: "Television won't last. It's a flash in the pan."
Couldn't be More Wrong
Not much background on this prediction, but it's cited in many places.
Blurred Vision? RE: Personal Computers
Though there is some dispute whether Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., was referring to personal computers or to a computerized home, DEC never made a play in the home PC market and was bought by Compaq in 1998.
But he wasn't the only person to mistake the value of computers. Earlier, in 1943, then president of IBM Thomas J. Watson, Sr. forecasted: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
A little later, in 1957, a business book editor at publishers Prentice Hall is reported to have declared: "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
An Apocryphal Story, and a Couple That Appear True
This isn't the only -- or even the worst prediction -- that Gates is known for. Far more often cited was the alleged "640K ought to be enough for anybody."
However, Gates strenuously denies that he ever said it, noting that at the time he was frustrated with the 640K limit and had pushed to increase it.
Further, in spite of several attempts to document the quote, none has been found.
Still, author James Fallows, as quoted in a 2008 Computerworld article, summed up the reason for its persistence: "Yet despite Gates' convincing denial, the quote is unlikely to die," Fallows wrote. "It's too convenient an expression of the computer industry's sense that no one can be sure what will happen next."
Perhaps worse, Gates also is credited with saying in 2004, "Spam will be a thing of the past in two years' time."
Forced to Eat His Words
In a column published in the December 4, 1995 issue of InfoWorld, Metcalf confidently predicted the end -- nee the "catastrophic collapse" -- of the Internet -- and promised to eat his words if it didn't.
Two years later, he did just that. A report posted on phillly.com reported that he "... ripped the column from a back issue ... tore it into pieces, dropped them into an electric blender with a clear liquid, poured the resulting mixture into a bowl and ate it with a spoon."
The astronomer perhaps best known for investigating hacker Markus Hess in 1986 -- and his book The Cookoo's Egg, which described the pursuit, also is well known for deriding the benefits of the Web.
In a Newsweek article, Why the Web Won't Be Nirvana," Stoll snarkily dismissed ebooks, among other internet predictions:
"Try reading a book on disc. At best, it's an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can't tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure."
Who Coulda Predicted?
Perhaps Myhrvold can be forgiven this unfortunate prediction. Almost everyone thought Apple was dying when he made this bold statement.
However, the former Microsoft CTO, also is credited with quite a few predictions that came true. A Reuters report, The 20-year-old Microsoft memo that came true from early this year enumerates them.
Start-up Doubts Prove Nothing to Worry About.
In March 2005, with only about 50 videos online, the co-founder of YouTube expressed his doubt about the start-ups future.
Little did he know.
A Failure of Imagination
It wasn't only the unnamed bank president who predicted that the horseless carriage would never catch on.
A congressional committee reported on the new "ICE" (internal combustion engine) technology questioned the safety of exploding gas inside the cylinder of an engine; the safety of a car speeding at up to "even 20 miles per hour"; and the ruin to agriculture from the displacement of horses.
Meanwhile, "urban planners, city fathers, and environmentalists of the time made one simple error, which was to extrapolate the future from the present," according to "History's Worst Predictions."
"If New York continued to grow at the same rate, and the equine population continued to increase to keep up with the demand, they reasoned, by the early decades of the twentieth century, the streets would be three storeys deep in horse manure."