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Tech predictions gone wrong

Kevin Fogarty | Oct. 23, 2012
The computer industry and the customers it serves have proven to be extraordinarily slippery during the past 45 years.

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.


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