The ten worst IT predictions of all time

Hindsight is a wonderful beast, especially when it provides the perfect opportunity for the smug masses to poke the finger of fun at those we most like to deride: rich, high-profile power brokers getting it horribly wrong. Perhaps that’s why the internet is awash with references to Bill Gates saying “640K ought to be enough for anyone”, even though he denies ever saying something so daft.

The ten worst IT predictions of all time

Nonetheless, considering the pace of change brought about by technology, making a pronouncement on the future is a hostage to fortune. As baseball legend Yogi Berra once said: “Making predictions is dangerous, particularly ones about the future.”

Foreseeing how technology will mature is as hard as guessing what a newborn baby will do when he grows up – the job he chooses may not even have been imagined.

Only Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, he of Moore’s Law fame, has made any bold predictions about the future that have held sway throughout the computing era, predicting in 1965 that the transistor density of semiconductor chips would double roughly every 18 months. But let’s face it, he did have inside information and enormous spectacles.

Most experts, however, have failed to see the future of technology, even if it’s staring them in the face, partly because it combines so many different facets, from the technological to the sociological. It’s reassuring to know that this is by no means a new phenomenon though. To quote a Western Union internal memo from 1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be considered seriously as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” While it’s comforting to laugh at the so-called experts, it’s worth remembering that some of the greatest thinkers have seemed as barmy as barking buzzards at the time, but the world does need free thinkers to push technology forward.

As Steve Jobs said in 1996: “The web is like the early days of the PC industry. No-one really knows anything. There are no experts. All the experts have been wrong. There’s a tremendous open possibility to the whole thing. And it hasn’t been confined, or defined, in too many ways. That’s wonderful.”

1 Death of the iPod

Alan Sugar believed the iPod faced imminent doom when interviewed in the Daily Telegraph in February 2005, declaring then “dead, finished, gone” by the following Christmas, but we’re now buying some 40 million of the slinky white (and black) numbers a year. Market research company NPD reports that Apple still holds a 75% share of MP3 player sales. Twenty years ago, Sugar’s Amstrad and Apple were neck-and-neck at the vanguard of the personal computer. Not any more. In recent years, the iPod’s “halo effect” has seen sales of Apple’s laptops soar – market share has doubled to 12% of the market and the company is now worth $53 billion, more than 100 times that of Amstrad.

Sir Alan had it half right – there are a lot of competitors in the market, some of them from China – but if Amstrad’s [email protected] video phone had enjoyed half the success of the iPod, Sir Alan would be the biggest name in telephony, not television.

2 Killer spam

Will spam kill the golden goose? Serious, otherwise level-headed people, as well as politicians, actually pondered whether the world’s cottage industry of spammers could bring down the web’s killer app. Three years later might be too early to decide, but with 84 billion emails sent every day, signs are that the medium is still going strong, even if Cambridge University estimates that 60% of those emails are still junk. Email remains the number one internet activity.

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