6 premature predictions of tech failure
Sometimes really smart people say really stupid things. Here are six instances when tech execs made bold predictions -- and ended up eating their words.
When you're a public figure, making predictions can be risky business.
Just ask Craig Mundie, Microsoft's head of research and strategy. Mundie recently went out on a limb and said he wasn't so sure if tablets -- you know, those shiny gadgets selling like hotcakes right now -- had much of a future.
"I don't know whether the big screen tablet pad category is going to remain with us or not," Mundie remarked during an event in Australia.
Mundie, no surprise, found himself the target of countless critical blogs and news reports. (It didn't help that just 16 months earlier, Mundie had said the time was right for tablet computing. Also, Microsoft itself has been working on a Windows-based tablet device for ages and is expected to have models on the market next year.) But hey, maybe the guy knows something we don't. Maybe he's the one who'll look like the genius 10 years from now.
If not, though, Mundie wouldn't be the first tech exec to make a daring prediction that doesn't pan out. In fact, he'd have plenty of egg-faced companions right within his company's walls.
Remember these high-profile proclamations?
1. The iPod is a goner.
If Microsoft's recent doomsday prediction for the tablet sounds familiar, there's a reason: It was just six short years ago that Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates made some brash statements about another one of Apple's market-defining gadgets. We're talking, of course, about the portable digital music player -- that little thing called the iPod. Back in 2005, Gates declared that its days were numbered.
"I don't think the success of the iPod can continue in the long term," Gates said in an interview with a German newspaper.
Whoopsie daisy. But hang on: Gates wasn't the only one who thought Apple might suffer from premature dissipation. That same year, then-Motorola CEO Ed Zander publicly knocked Apple's new iPod Nano model, asking: "What the hell does the Nano do? Who listens to 1,000 songs?"
(Moto later did damage control and claimed the comments were "taken out of context"; Zander was merely joking when he made the remarks, company reps insisted. We'll leave it up to you to decide.)
Finally, across the pond, Britain's Sir Alan Sugar -- the guy behind U.K. electronics giant Amstrad -- is credited with an iPodcalyptic prophecy of his own. Sugar reportedly went on the record as saying the iPod had until the following Christmas before it would be "dead, finished, gone, kaput."
Suffice it to say, he was incorrect, wrong, misguided, mistaken.
2. The Internet's no big thing.
Plenty of tech tycoons doubted the power of these here InterTubes when they first started to show commercial promise. Among the naysayers -- you guessed it -- was Microsoft's own Bill Gates.
A couple of infamous Internet-bashing quotes have been attributed to Gates, though some debate now exists over whether he actually said them. The most notorious is the purported 1993 remark: "The Internet? We are not interested in it." Then, in '94, some claim Gates uttered the embarrassing line: "I see little commercial potential for the Internet for the next 10 years."
At this point, whether or not Gates said those things is a matter of conjecture. We do know, however, that while speaking at a University of Washington event in 1998, Gates admitted he wasn't exactly at the front of the Internet bandwagon.
"Sometimes we do get taken by surprise," Gates confessed. "For example, when the Internet came along, we had it as a fifth or sixth priority."
Even more extreme, Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet, predicted a literal implosion of the Internet as we know it. Writing for InfoWorld in 1995, Metcalfe said:
"Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet's continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."
To his credit, Metcalfe later fessed up to the misjudgment, and -- during a now-legendary speech at a tech conference in 1997 -- blended a physical copy of his column with liquid and then drank it to symbolize eating his words.
If only YouTube had been around back then...
3. The PC is pointless.
Oh, those quaint little personal computers. Who needs 'em, right?
That was the attitude once expressed by Ken Olson, the head honcho at a tech company called Digital Equipment Corporation. Digital produced a series of successful minicomputers and went on to create the search site Alta Vista (which was later acquired by Yahoo -- indirectly -- and now sits among the company's soon-to-be-shuttered properties).
Olson's contributions to the field of technology were tremendous, no doubt, but he didn't always hit the nail on the head. Such was the case when Olson broadly dismissed the idea of PCs becoming household commodities.
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home," Olson famously said in 1977.
Clearly, the phrase "Internet porn" had never entered his head.
4. TV? Fuhgeddaboudit!
Call it the telly, the boob tube, or the idiot box -- years ago, high-profile tech thinkers were calling television a trend that couldn't possibly stand the test of time.
Respected inventor Lee DeForest, known as one of the "fathers of the electronic age," declared TV a dead-in-the-water business.
"While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility," DeForest once remarked.
Darryl Zanuck, an exec from 20th Century Fox, seemed to agree. "Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months," Zanuck is quoted as saying. "People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."
Then there's T.A.M. Craven, an FCC engineer who thought he knew a thing or two about how home entertainment would evolve.
"There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States," Craven stated in 1961.
To be fair, some present-day DirecTV customers might argue that Craven was right when it comes to the question of quality.
5. Google's going nowhere.
All right, back to Microsoft: Our pals from Redmond have a history of knocking their competitors -- frequently in ways that come back to bite them. The company's many remarks on Google provide the perfect illustration.
In 2003, Bill Gates pooh-poohed the threat of the then-burgeoning search company, telling his staff:
"These Google guys, they want to be billionaires and rock stars and go to conferences and all that. Let us see if they still want to run the business in two to three years."
In an interview with Fortune that same year, Gates called Google "so cool that you just can't even deal with it" -- suggesting, as the story's author put it, that Google was "nothing more than the latest fad."
6. Android's irrelevant, and the iPhone is doomed to fail.
Why stop with the Web? Microsoft execs have made plenty of now-silly-sounding statements on the subject of smartphones, too.
At an investor's event in 2008, Steve Ballmer broadly dismissed the threat of Android, saying he didn't "understand [its] strategy" and going on to proclaim:
"Google doesn't exactly bubble to the top of the list of the top competitors we've got going in mobile."
That same year, Ballmer is credited with announcing: "Google's not a real company. It's a house of cards."
And as for that other little smartphone -- you know, the one with the lowercase "i" -- it was apparently no cause for concern, either.
"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance," Ballmer told USA Today in 2007.
Also, Clippy is going to save the world, and Microsoft Bob will one day be recognized as the most underrated product of all time. You heard it here first.