Five Famously Wrong Predictions About Technology

If these came true, there would be no home computers, tablets, or Internet

19 December 2014

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With the new year almost here, it’s that time when predictions about the future abound. I thought it would be fun to end 2014 by revisiting prognostications from the past that were, well, off the mark to put it kindly.

  • 1. “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Ken Olsen, president Digital Equipment, 1977.

    Olson made this statement at the World Future Society meeting in Boston. While he admits he said it, he claims his statement was taken out of context.

    While PC sales are dropping—technology research company Gartner forecasted a 6 percent drop from last year, more than 276 million PCs are expected to be shipped this year, 37 years after Olson’s prediction. About two-thirds of the sales are from computer owners who are updating their equipment. The remaining third are replacing their machines with tablets, which brings me to the next prediction, a recent one.

  • 2. “In five years, I don’t think there will be a reason to have a tablet anymore…tablets themselves are not a good business model.” Thorsten Heins, then Blackberry CEO, 2013.

    Heins told this to Bloomberg but a month later he revised his comments by saying “We’re interested in the future of tablets, whatever that is.”

    Tablets will be around a lot longer than Heins’s tenure at Blackberry: he lost his job in November 2013. About 235 million tablets are forecast to ship by the end of the year, according to the research firm IDC. But it forecasts year-over-year growth of the worldwide tablet market is slowing to just more than 7 percent, compared to 52.5 percent in 2013. That’s because those who have tablets are holding onto them longer, an average of three years. Unlike Heins’s prediction, many organizations have found a way to make tablets part of their business model. School districts are using them as teaching aids, restaurants are taking orders with them, and interior designers can show clients what their new furniture and curtains in a room will look like. What is giving tablets a run for their money might be what some call phablets like Samsung’s Galaxy Note, which combines the functionality of larger smartphones and tablets. But smartphones wouldn’t be around if the next prediction had come true.

  • 3. “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Steve Ballmer, Former Microsoft CEO, 2007.

    In April of that year, Steve Ballmer told USA Today, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Ballmer cited the iPhone’s relatively high US $499 subsidized price as one of his reasons.

    Apple is thought to have sold some 38.2 million iPhones in the third quarter of 2014, according to market research firm Gartner's quarterly handset sales tracker. Gartner expects Apple to have record fourth-quarter sales, with demand for its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus outstripping supply. Sales of Samsung’s feature phones and smartphones declined in the third quarter of 2014, but it continues to lead in sales with more than 73.2 million units sold as of the third quarter, according to Gartner.

  • 4. “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” Martin Cooper, developer of the first handheld cellphone, 1981.

    IEEE Life Fellow Martin Cooper, then director of research at Motorola, gave the Christian Science Monitor this reason why the portable phone wouldn’t replace the landline: “Even if you project it beyond our lifetimes, it won't be cheap enough,” Cooper said. He did foresee how the device would let people become more mobile. “People don’t realize how tied they are to a single place,” he argued.

    I swapped my landline for my cellphone nearly a decade ago. But I’m not the only one to cut the cord with landlines. More than a quarter of U.S. households have stopped using landline phones, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2013. Just 71 percent of households had landlines in 2011, down from a little more than 96 percent 16 years ago. Cellphone ownership reached 89 percent, up from about 36 percent in 1998, the first year the survey asked about the devices.

  • 5. I predict the Internet in 1996 [will] catastrophically collapse.” Robert Metcalfe, coinventor of the Internet, 1995.

    Metcalfe, one of the inventors of the Ethernet, told InfoWorld in 1995, “The Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” Metcalfe, who received the 1996 IEEE Medal of Honor, was discussing capacity and whether the infrastructure of the Internet would hold up under ever-increasing traffic. He ate his words—literally. In 1999, addressing the Sixth International WWW Conference, Metcalfe put a copy of his infamous column into a blender, pureed it, and drank it.

    The predictions have come full circle since most of us use our computers, tablets, and smartphones to surf the Internet, causing traffic to grow at steep rates. According to a report prepared by Cisco Visual Networking Index, global Internet traffic has increased fivefold over the past five years, and will increase threefold over the next five years. Overall, Internet traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent from now to 2018. This whole Internet thing doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. And I think we are all happy this prediction never came true.

What are some tech predictions you’ve heard of that—for better or worse—didn’t come true?

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