In the technology world, bold predictions abound, and they should. Placing big bets in one direction or another is how this industry works. Some pundits try to make educated guesses about where tech is headed, while others prognosticate in reaction to disruptive technologies that could boost (or threaten) their business.
As we all know, foretelling what’s going to happen in five, 10 or 30 years is pretty much impossible, but some predictions are so spectacularly wrong that they should be immortalized. That’s why I’ve selected these gems from some of the biggest names, publications and research firms to present the 10 worst tech predictions of all time. A couple of these timelines haven’t yet passed, but I feel comfortable predicting them as total fails now.
The iPhone has no chance
Back in 2007, the world was in a frenzy over the iPhone (aka the Jesus Phone), which combined a widescreen iPod with a full-fledged browser and introduced the masses to multi-touch displays. Steve Jobs claimed that the iPhone was five years ahead of the competition, but the head of Microsoft wasn’t having it.
In April of that year Steve Ballmer told USA Today that “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Ballmer cited the iPhone’s relatively high $499 subsidized price as one of the reasons the device would flop. Fast forward to 2013 and the iPhone commands 42 percent of U.S. smartphone market share and 13.1 percent worldwide.
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Who needs a home PC?
The setting was (ironically) the World Future Society meeting in Boston, and the speaker was Ken Olson, the president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. Olson did in fact say that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” but he claims his statement was taken out of context.
The head of the leading low-cost minicomputers maker said he was referring to computers that control every aspect of your home. Nevertheless, DEC would lose the mainframe war to IBM and would never gain traction in the personal computing market. Olsen was replaced as CEO in 1992 and the company was sold to Compaq in 1998. While in a state of decline, IDC expects PC sales to total 345 million in 2013.
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Fly cars by 1944!
You could say that this famous pilot was ahead of his time. Way ahead. In July 1924 Eddie Rickenbacker wrote in Popular Science Monthly that we would have flying cars within 20 years. This combo auto-airplane would “have a body shape similar to the present hydroplane hull, making it both a water and land machine. Rickenbacker also claimed that the 25-feet wings would fold back against the sides of the car when driving.
Even though 69 years have flown by -- along with the Jetsons’ flying car and Back to the Future’s flying DeLorean -- innovators haven’t given up. The Terrafugia Transition, dubbed a “roadable aircraft,” just made its first public flight. It’s the first street-legal airplane that converts between flying and driving modes in less than a minute. The company claims that you can fly into any of 5,000 public U.S. airports, and you can pre-order one for just $279,000. Production begins in 2015.
Maybe he was trying to put the ill-fated PlayBook tablet behind him, or maybe he just forgot about a little thing called the iPad. Whatever the reason, Thorsten Heins started a firestorm of bad PR when he told Blooomberg the following: "In five years I don't think there'll be a reason to have a tablet anymore...Tablets themselves are not a good business model." A month later Heins walked back his comments, saying "We're interested in the future of tablets, whatever that is.” Too late.
Tablet sales are still very much on the rise, growing 142 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2013. During the second quarter of 2013, 34.6 million Android tablets shipped, compared to 2.7 million BlackBerry 10 phones. Even with a drop in sales, Apple moved 14 million iPads. Last but not least, the Los Angeles School District recently ordered iPads for 640,000 students. I guess Heins should break the news they just bought an obsolete technology.
Steve Jobs trashes music subscriptions
The late founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs was right about a lot of things, including predicting the Post-PC era and the death of Flash (though Apple helped). Jobs was also correct when he said in 2003 that the iTunes Music Store would “go down as a turning point for the music industry.” In February 2013, the 25 billionth song was purchased from the store. However, Jobs was wrong about digital music's evolution.
That same year Jobs told Rolling Stone that he didn’t think subscription-based music services such as Rhapsody would fly. “I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model and it might not be successful,” Jobs said. Today, Spotify has more than 6 million paid subscribers who can listen to all the tunes they want for a flat monthly fee. The new iTunes Radio service will let you skip ads for a $24.99 yearly fee that ties into iTunes Match, but you won’t be able to stream your favorite tracks on demand.
Bonus: Steve Jobs also called 7-inch tablets “dead on arrival” in 2010. Oops.
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Remote shopping will flop
If you put yourself back in the Mad Men era, you could certainly understand why many doubted that remote shopping would take off. It was a different time indeed, when the closest thing to an Amazon was a Sears Christmas Wish Book Catalog. For the record, it totaled 605 pages, with 225 pages devoted to toys and 380 pages to gifts for adults.
Here was Time Magazine's reasoning for saying remote shopping would flop: “Because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds." E-commerce would change all of that, allowing both women and men to browse and virtually try on all sorts of goods before adding them to their digital shopping carts. According to eMarketer, e-commerce sales topped $1 trillion for the first time in 2012, and Amazon alone raked in $15.7 billion in the second quarter of 2013.
Windows Phone forecast fail
Fresh off the honeymoon of Nokia’s and Microsoft’s strategic partnership, analyst firms believed that the two companies would make beautiful music together in the smartphone market. In fact, three separate firms predicted that the Windows Phone would unseat Apple’s iOS by 2015. "The new alliance brings together Nokia's hardware capabilities and Windows Phone's differentiated platform,” said Ramon Llamas in 2011, research manager for IDC. “By 2015, we expect Windows Phone to be the No. 2 operating system." Oh boy.
Windows Phone has indeed grown from 2.9 to 4 percent in the U.S., according to Kantar Worldpanel, and the new 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 is the best camera phone ever. However, this platform isn’t anywhere close to the No. 2 spot. As Apple gained more distribution through multiple carriers worldwide and pumped out successful sequels, IDC and others revised their forecasts. “Everybody is looking at who’s going to be No. 3,” Llamas says now, “and that’s between Windows Phone and BlackBerry.”
The Internet collapses
Did you know the person who co-invented Ethernet predicted the demise of the Web? Robert Metcalfe told InfoWorld in 1995 that “the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” Three years later, he would literally eat those words on stage after running his column through a blender.
So why did Metcalfe go out on this limb? He was opining about capacity and whether the infrastructure of the Web would hold up under ever-increasing demand. He didn’t stop there. In 2011 Metcalfe told TechCrunch that there is a social networking bubble. “It will burst like all previous bubbles have.” Watch out, Facebook!
HP tops the tablet charts
HP was pretty bullish on webOS when it acquired Palm for $1.2 billion in 2010. The platform would be the linchpin for HP’s mobile strategy, starting with the TouchPad tablet. Confidence was running so high that Eric Cador, vice president of HP's Personal Systems Group for Europe, Middle East and Africa, was certain that HP’s PC success would translate to the tablet market.
"In the PC world, with fewer ways of differentiating HP's products from our competitors, we became No. 1; in the tablet world we're going to become better than No. 1. We call it No. 1-plus." Not so much. In our review we panned the TouchPad's sluggish performance, weak battery life and skimp app selection. HP would kill off the TouchPad and all webOS hardware just 7 weeks later after staggeringly weak sales.
Bonus: From HP Chairman Ray Lane in September 2011, after the Touchpad was discontinued: "You cannot develop serious portable applications on Android.”
More: Top 10 tablets
It doesn’t get more ironic than this. The very person who is credited for being the father of the cell phone didn’t see the true potential of his earth-shattering innovation. In 1981, Marty Cooper, then director of research at Motorola, told the Christian Science Monitor why the portable phone wouldn’t replace the landline anytime close to soon. "Even if you project it beyond our lifetimes, it won't be cheap enough,” Cooper said.
To be fair, Cooper saw how cellular phones (even the bricks of the time) would let people be more mobile. "People don't realize how tied they are to a single place," he argued.
According to the most recent National Health Interview Survey, the number of U.S adults with a mobile phone but no landline rose to 34 percent in the first half of 2012. The number of adults with a landline and no mobile? That’s 8 percent.
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