Back in the early 1980s, David Byrne wrote a piece of music called "In The Future," in which he rattled off a deadpan litany of contradictory predictions. ("In the future no one will fight with anyone else. In the future there will be an atomic war.")
For Byrne, the list was a source of droll humor. But in today's technology marketplace, such prognostication is a serious business. The past weeks have inundated us with crystal-ball-gazing exercises full of Byrne-like prediction lists: "In the future, we will abandon our PCs as the Internet migrates to our toasters and refrigerators." "In the future, we will communicate directly with one another via IP-enabled brainwaves."
Here's a personal prediction: In the future, I will not write one of those "we will" columns -- this year or, if I can help it, this millennium. But as the recent future-tense media orgy subsides, a look back over the technology predictions of the past decade may prove useful -- as a humbling reminder of how regularly wrong the conventional wisdom has been.
Here's a roster of misfired predictions, expectations and assumptions that pundits of every stripe -- including, in many cases, myself -- embraced in the 1990s, only to be proven ludicrously mistaken.
(1) The Web will never take off as a vehicle for financial services until it offers truly secure transactions.
In 1994, when the Web first burst onto the world stage and dragged the Internet with it, the keepers of the previous generation of proprietary networks scoffed at both Web and Net for the openness and relative lack of security that their university-researcher inventors designed into them. And it did seem highly unlikely that these not-so-secure networks -- in which new holes seem to be exposed nearly every day -- would become places where everyday people felt comfortable managing their money.
It turns out that, whether they're naive or just allergic to the complexity of the issue, security is the last thing everyday people worry about, at least in the United States. The Web is now where more and more Americans trade their stock, shop for loans and mortgages and manage their retirement plans. Small purchases -- "microtransactions" -- were supposed to rule the day online; instead, it seems, the bigger the transaction, the more willing we are to commit it to cyberspace.
(2) America Online is doomed.
In the mid-'90s, AOL had such a legacy of poor customer support, sluggish software and dismissal of the Web as "just a passing fad" that Internet-savvy observers almost universally believed that the service would wither and die. At best its easy-onramp approach would keep it around as a supplier of "Internet training wheels" for newbies; at worst its clumsy proprietary network and content would consign it to the same trash heap that was getting ready to absorb the old-line Prodigy, GEnie, Delphi and Compuserve networks.
AOL fooled all of us. It made a series of very smart moves -- switching to a flat-rate fee, offering its users full (if slow) access to the Web and continuing to burnish its reputation as the easiest way for beginners to get online. Gradually, it transformed itself from "a company that would be made obsolete by the Internet" to "an Internet company" -- without ever abandoning its proprietary network. It was a neat trick. Having pulled it off, AOL now faces a similar challenge in the age of cable-modems and DSL: Can the largest dial-up-modem operation in the world transform itself yet again? Today, AOL's size and vast customer base mean that the pundits are no longer betting against it.
(3) Television and the Web will "converge."
The press is perennially eager to take every new technological medium that comes along -- in the past decade, everything from CD-ROM publishing to the Web -- and marry it off to TV. Every time so far, the nuptial announcements have been premature, but that hasn't stopped the flow of invitations.
Sure, new technologies will change how we use TV, just as VCRs and remote controls once did. But the insistent predictions of "convergence" keep failing to come true. Could it be that TV is quite good at being TV, that the Web is something fundamentally different, and that nobody wants to see the two "converge" -- except entrepreneurs with too much easy venture-capital cash in their hands?
(4) With the rise of PCs and the Net, more and more people will be able to work out of their homes.
Telecommuting was supposed to be the wave of the future. We'd sit in our home offices in our slippers with our cats on our laps, produce brilliant work and present it to our colleagues via video-conferencing. We'd kiss our old commutes goodbye and use that time more productively (or for more fun). The benefits of telecommuting were supposed to flow to "knowledge workers" in particular.
As it turns out, though, while lots of industries have taken advantage of the Net to decentralize, move their back offices and employ contract workers, the Net industry itself -- the ultimate "knowledge work" -- remains obsessed with putting its people in the same physical "meatspace."
Silicon Valley may produce the technologies of telecommuting, but it remains the national capital of jammed freeways, overcrowded employee parking lots and housing shortages. The mantra is, "You've gotta be here"; telecommuting apparently can't rival the synergy achieved by the valley's concentration of brains, creativity and money. Well, at least you can buy your car online and track the traffic jams with your browser.
(5) The pen computer/network computer/Internet device will render the personal computer obsolete.
The death of the PC keeps being announced, and one day, I suppose, the prediction will come true. But the "pen computing" industry didn't take off until the designers of the PalmPilot figured out that the handheld device needed to be an adjunct of the PC, not a replacement for it.
Similarly, the push for low-cost, dedicated-function network computers or Internet devices keeps getting undercut by dropping PC prices. If you can get a multifunction computer for the same low price as a more limited device, most people will choose the computer. The only chance the network computer/Internet device people have is to design something that is truly so simple to use -- so bug-free and idiot-proof -- that users frustrated by the complexity of PCs will embrace it with relief. So far the technology industry has proven totally incapable of achieving that level of simplicity; it's simply not in our engineers' genes.
(6) Software agents and bots will become your personal assistants, scouring the Net on your behalf.
For much of the decade, the press was full of soon-to-come-true visions of an online paradise full of digital butlers. Some of that notion is still alive today in the names of companies like AskJeeves and MySimon. But something funny happened on the way to bot utopia: Most of the software agents you encounter on the Web today aren't really your helpers at all -- they're owned by e-commerce companies and they report directly to those firms' marketing departments. They're more like domestic spies than domestic servants. Remember that the next time a Web site's "agent" asks you to list your favorite music or provide it with your shopping list.
(7) We can identify the Next Big Thing by visiting trade shows, tracking press releases and scouting out start-up companies.
The stock market and the technology trade press are good barometers of the ebb and flow of enthusiasms on the surface of the industry, but they're a lousy way to find out what's really bubbling up underneath. The '90s technologies that came out of nowhere to change our lives -- from the Web itself to more recent innovations like MP3 music distribution and the open-source software movement -- emerged because millions of users chose to adopt them. Then the press releases flowed, the venture capitalists moved in and the trade shows multiplied.
In short, if you want to chart the future, you'd do well to pay less attention to The Street and more to the street.
Although I am loath to make predictions myself, there is one I can make with total confidence: In the future, we will continue to be wrong about most things. Unless, of course, I'm wrong about that.