Tis the season for predictions, so Information Age bravely goes out on this limb: Most technology predictions for 2010 won’t come true. The more we learn about how innovation happens, the less straight the lines of advance look.
“Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments,” said Roman engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus in 10 AD. This end-of-progress view has been echoed many times, including by Charles Duell, commissioner for the US patent office, who in 1899 said, “Everything that can be invented has already been invented.”
It’s worth recalling, especially in a gloomy year such as the one drawing to an end, that the opposite is true: The more we invent, the more we invent. Knowledge grows on itself.
So here are the rest of my top 10 worst technology predictions, which prove that when it comes to tech, optimism pays:
“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys,” Sir William Preece, chief engineer at the British Post Office, 1878.
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” H.M. Warner, Warner Bros, 1927.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946.
“The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most,” IBM executives to the eventual founders of Xerox, 1959.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” Ken Olsen, founder of mainframe producer Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
“No one will need more than 637Kb of memory for a personal computer—640K ought to be enough for anybody,” Bill Gates, Microsoft, 1981.
“Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput,” Sir Alan Sugar, British entrepreneur, 2005.
Sometimes predictions about technology fail because they’re overly optimistic—for example, we don’t commute by jetpack yet—but more often predictions fail because we underestimate the ability of inventors.
Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, identified what he called the “three laws of prediction”, reflecting an optimistic view of ingenuity: 1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong; 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture past them into the impossible; and 3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Clarke was an exception to the rule that predicting future technology is hard. In Wireless World magazine in 1945, he proposed using a set of satellites in geostationary orbit to form a global communications network.
In The View from Serendip, published in 1977, Clarke predicted the Internet: “Immediate access in the home via simple computer-type keyboards, and TV displays, to all the world’s great libraries... And items needed for permanent reference could be printed off as soon as located on a copying machine—or filed magnetically in the home storage system.”
In the same book, he also forecast email and online news: “Facsimile services whereby letters, printed matter, etc., can be reproduced instantly. The physical delivery of mail and newspapers will thus be largely replaced by the orbital post office, and the orbital newspaper...”
As we go into 2010, there are entrepreneurs and technologists doing their best to confound predictions. Or as computer scientist Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
A year ago, it would have been hard to predict that social networking websites would become the new mass media, or that Google would be a mobile phone brand. Technological advances can be frustrating when almost every industry is being dislocated by that fast-moving change. On the other hand, we all benefit from these changes, including in endless consumer choice.
Even a sceptical column on technology predictions would be incomplete without a few predictions, so here are a couple: The much-anticipated tablet computer from Apple won’t be on sale before March, and Google’s market share for search will remain strong, but not go beyond 85% at the end of 2010.
Disclosure: These predictions look like safe bets because the potential outcomes of these topics are being traded in online betting markets. These markets reflect the wisdom of crowds, which tend to make more accurate predictions than individuals.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
L. Gordon Crovitz is a ‘Wall Street Journal’ columnist.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org