It’s the start of a new year and that can mean only one thing. Bloggers and industry experts everywhere have been rolling out their crystal balls, spilling tea leaves on their MacBooks and gazing up at the stars in order to divine their top tips for the future of tech in 2017.
But before you go and convert your life savings into Bitcoin or throw out your TV for a HoloLens, it’s worth taking a look at some famous examples that demonstrate why predicting the future in the fast-moving world of technology is more art than science.
Prediction 1: Rocket Mail Is The Future
In 1959, the US Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield made a stunning and now infamous prediction that “Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail”.
Aside from the fact that the New York to Australia postal route was presumably quite a niche one at the time, you have to applaud the man for his ambition.
This is a fantastic example of an expert taking an old technology to it’s extreme rather than foreseeing a completely new paradigm.
Ten years after this glorious statement was made, Neil Armstrong made his historic small step off the Apollo 11 lunar module and yet not a single Sydney resident was corresponding with their Brooklyn friends about it via ballistic missile. Instead, in 1971 an engineer at BBN Technologies called Ray Tomlinson sent the first email and the world started to become a much smaller place.
Prediction 2: Personal Computers Have No Future
There are two very famous incorrect predictions regarding the personal computer that owe their fame due to how spectacularly wrong they turned out to be.
The first, attributed to Thomas J. Watson during his time as Head of IBM, was that “there is a world market for maybe five computers”. Although there is actually very little evidence that Watson made this famously wrong prediction it highlights the short-sighted view on the potential of personal computing that existed during it’s infancy.
In 1977, Ken Olsen, the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and a major player in the early computing industry prophesied that ‘There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home’ in what turned out to be the other famously terrible personal computing prediction. He later clarified that what he actually meant was that he saw no future for a Jetsons-style connected home. A clarification that turns his quote into a fantastic double-whammy of myopia.
IBM went on to invent the ‘PC’ and eventually sold their PC business to Lenovo in 2005 in a deal worth $1.75 billion. Since then, the term ‘personal computing’ has expanded beyond the home to include mobile devices and more recently the ‘Internet of Things’ and has gone on to become possibly the most disruptive technology ever created.
Prediction 3: Apple Won’t Make a Phone (And When They Do – It Won’t Be Very Popular)
“Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’”.
This quote comes from New York Times technology journalist David Pogue in 2006. To be fair to him, this was a time when Apple’s shroud of secrecy around their products was pretty iron-clad – before every new iProduct was leaked online in fuzzy pictures taken by Chinese factory workers.
Still, Pogue had to eat a hefty slice of humble pie when, less than a year later, Steve Jobs took to the stage in California to introduce the iPhone to the world. In response, Microsoft boss Steve Balmer proclaimed ‘There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.’. A year later he did it again when he wrote off iPhone apps by saying “Let’s look at the facts, nobody uses those things’.
Fast forward to present day and the facts are astonishing. iPhone has become the most successful consumer electronics product in history, selling over 1 billion units worldwide (which is nearly 1 billion more units than the Microsoft Zune). As for Apps, they have become a huge reason behind the dominance of Apple and Android in the mobile OS space and Apple customers alone spend over $20 billion annually on them.
Prediction 4: The Horse is Here to Stay
In 1894, a Detroit lawyer named Horace Rackman opened a law firm with his business partner. The partnership was very successful and they counted amongst their clients the Detroit coal dealer Alexander Y. Malcomson. In 1903, Malcomson introduced Rackman to a local businessman who instructed Rackman to draw up papers incorporating his new automobile company.
The businessman also offered Rackman the chance to buy stock in the new company, something that the president of the Michigan Savings Bank infamously advised him against, stating “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad,”.
Rackman ignored the advice. He borrowed money and sold real estate to scrape together $5000 and bought a 6% stake in the fledgling company.
That local businessman was a man named Henry Ford and Rackman found himself owning 6% of the Ford Motor Company. In 1919, Rackman sold his shares back to Ford for $12.5 million – an amount equivalent to $175 million in today’s money and made a 250,000% return on his investment.
Prediction 5: The Internet? Bah!
As you sit reading this article, delivered via the Internet, it’s easy to forget that there was once a time when the future of this new information network and the ‘World Wide Web’ that existed within it was uncertain.
So uncertain in fact that author Clifford Stoll decided to write a book in 1995 in which he expressed his doubts that the Internet would ever make a meaningful impact on the way we live. In the book, titled ‘Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway’, Stoll called the prospect of e-commerce ‘baloney’ due to a lack of personal contact and secure online funds transfer and stated that ‘no online database will ever replace your daily newspaper’.
In a fantastically practical way to demonstrate just how wrong Stoll was, a Google search of the book’s title returns an Amazon link as the top result where it’s available to purchase for £2.80 via 1-Click ordering.
Like death and taxes, the third certainty in life is the terrible prediction. So what better way to finish an article about the foolishness of making tech predictions than by making another foolish tech prediction. This one, however, is a little different because it’s based on the very fact that predictions are so often wrong.
Working as I do in the software industry, I’m asked by clients all the time about whether their software will ‘futureproof’ their organisation. My answer is always the same; it’s impossible to know exactly what the future of your organisation looks like.
Good companies are agile, quick to identify and react to market changes. They foster a culture where innovation is key and they know that you either adapt or you die.
Fortunately we are now on the cusp of an exciting new idea – empowering non-technical staff to create and update business software without having to know anything about writing code.
I wrote previously about the idea of ‘Low-code’ and how 2016 saw Salesforce, Google and Microsoft enter the arena – my prediction for 2017 is that we’ll see Low-code make its move as an important trend for enterprise IT.
For a demo of a Low-code system in action, take a look here.
And if I’m wrong, well at least this will make another nice tech prediction failure example in 2018!