10 Classic Failed Tech Predictions

By Robert Seawright, Proprietor, Above the Market

Today’s Quote of the Day from Abnormal Returns (from Dustin Curtis): “The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present. It’s very easy to unconsciously dismiss the first versions of something as frivolous or useless. Or as stupid ideas.”

Indeed.  It’s remarkably easy to miss the boat entirely.  As a consequence, flawed predictions abound and aren’t limited to the economy or the markets.  Enjoy these ten from the tech world….

Here’s a classic from Newsweek, February 27, 1995, by Clifford Stoll:

“Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

“Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

Stoll didn’t stop there:  “Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.”

The wonderfulness just won’t stop:  “So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”

Read it all, please, but here’s the send-off (which isn’t entirely wrong):  “While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where—in the holy names of Education and Progress—important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.”

Ironically, it was Newsweek that didn’t survive (in print at least). To be fair, Stoll himself ishumbled, calling his piece (see the comments to the linked piece) a “howler” and a reminder that he (like we) can be very, very wrong.

Per late-night infomercials everywhere: But wait, there’s more….

Western Union internal memo, 1876:  “”This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

Author Bruce Sterling told The New York Times: “Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite ‘The Iliad.’”

Lord Kelvin, renowned scientist and President of The Royal Society, 1895:  “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

Tech and travel journalist Erik Sandberg-Diment, in a December 8, 1985, op-ed in The New York Times: “Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so … Because no matter how inexpensive the machines become, and no matter how sophisticated their software, I still can’t imagine the average user taking one along when going fishing.”

Rex Lambert in The Listener:  “Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.”

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer:  “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

From a 1939 editorial in The New York Times:  “TV will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” 

Viacom and CBS Chairman Sumner Redstone: “I will believe in the 500-channel world only when I see it.”

RCA executive in response to David Sarnoff’s pitch for investment in radio: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”

Robert Seawright

Robert Seawright

Robert P. Seawright is the Chief Investment & Information Officer for Madison Avenue Securities, a broker-dealer and investment advisory firm headquartered in San Diego, California. Its focus is the capital markets and personal finance from a data-driven perspective.

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Comments

    • Twitter is taking over real time news.

      People watch the nightly news to find out what people on twitter have been talking about all day. 24 hour news can’t even keep up.

  1. Yeah, and there are lots more. Here’s another one: Schwinn, the ex-largest American bicycle manufacturer, upon seeing early mountain bikes in California – “There’s nothing here of interest to us.” Kind of makes you want to just stop predicting stuff, doesn’t it?

    I believe Lord Kelvin also messed up in calculating the age of the earth via thermal radiation. He didn’t know the earth had an internal heat source (from radioactive decay, which hadn’t been discovered yet) and came up way too short. Pretty sure Marie Curie had to politely set him straight.

    Sarnoff saw the early potential for television and dropped FM radio, in the process screwing both Armstrong and Farnsworth.