15 Dumbest Predictions from Supposedly Brilliant Tech Moguls
When the VCR was first announced, a lot of people were adamant it would never catch on. Why would anyone want to watch a TV show they’d already seen? Jack Valenti, best known as the longtime president of the MPAA and founder of its rating system, described it as being to the movie industry and American public “as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone,” which was pretty fucked up.
Those people could never have foreseen the world of the 2020s, a time in which (a) millions of people pay 20 bucks a month to rewatch The Office endlessly and (b) Hollywood pines for the income the home video market used to bring in.
It’s incredibly difficult to know what is and isn’t going to pan out technologically, and of the stuff that does pan out, what will end up striking a chord with the public and flying off shelves, and what will end up gathering dust before being swiftly forgotten. Robotic vacuum cleaners sounded like a dumb idea until it didn’t.
People who live and breathe technology, though, have less of an excuse than we shit-munching consumers do when it comes to fully shitting the bed prediction-wise. Hulk Hogan famously turned down endorsing what became the George Foreman grill because he couldn’t see it becoming popular, but Hulk Hogan has never been celebrated for his intelligence: He spent decades ripping off T-shirts and getting punched in the head. When a tech mogul who fully inhabits and understands that world makes a big dumbass pronouncement, it’s a million times more embarrassing.
In 1895, Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society and big-bearded genius, confidently stated, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” The Wright Brothers took to the skies just eight years later. What a dumbass.
One guy who definitely should have known better felt like the late Victorian era was hella futuristic: In 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, stated, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
In 1943 — which in tech terms might as well have been the Paleozoic era — IBM Chairman Thomas Watson stated: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
In 1946, 20th Century Fox co-founder Daryl Zanuck insisted, “Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
FCC commissioner T. Craven was adamant in 1961 that American communications technology was everything it would ever be, stating there was “no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service.”
Atari President Joe Keenan got personal in 1977 turning down Steve Jobs’ offer for rights to the Macintosh: “Get your feet off my desk, get out of here, you stink, and we’re not going to buy your product.”
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home,” Ken Olson, president of the Digital Equipment Corporation, confidently stated in 1977. Yeah there is! Games and shit.
In 1981, no less an authority than Bill Gates was confident “no one will need more than 637kb of memory for a personal computer. 640K ought to be enough for anybody.” A Nokia 3310 has many times more than that.
Clifford Stoll caught one of the first high-profile hackers, but was unconvinced by this “internet” thing, sarcastically insisting in his 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil, “We’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the internet. Uh, sure.” Uh, yes.
In 1995, 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe promised to eat his words if the internet didn’t “catastrophically collapse in 1996.” In fairness, he did later eat a piece of paper with his prediction printed on it.
Spotify’s current enormousness would have surprised Steve Jobs. In 2003 he told Rolling Stone music subscriptions would never work, and “you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model and it might not be successful.”
Bill Gates — him again — confidently told the 2004 World Economic Forum, “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” Two decades on, there are still a lot of “grow a bigger dick” email offers.
In April 2005, Steve Chen stated, “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.” Luckily for Chen, co-founder of YouTube and now a billionaire, many people disagreed.
In 2007, when Apple released the iPhone, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer insisted it would never catch on, insisting “it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard. Which makes it not a very good email machine.”
Elon Musk gets all shitty when people point out how many of his predictions — often wildly optimistic ones about his own products — fail to come true, insisting journalists should ignore his frequent mistakes, and “these are just guesses, people shouldn’t hold me to these things.”