Pundits' Hits and Misses

Posted by Peter Cochrane on September 27, 2002

The Wall Street Journal Europe, Kevin J. Delaney, PBI Media (UK)

Monte Carlo - Never make forecasts, especially about the future, American movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn supposedly declared. But in the field of technology, it is too tempting to refrain from predictions. Results are wrong as often as they are right. The Internet changed some things, but it hasn't changed everything, as many promised. Computers are great for word processing, organizing a business's finances and even editing feature films. But they don't drive our cars or make life decisions for us.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed six of technology's big thinkers at U.S. technology research firm IDC's annual information technology conference in Monte Carlo. They were asked to explain their biggest duds and direct hits and what bets they're making today. Caveat emptor!

Nicholas Negroponte
Founder and director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab

Worst prediction: People would be talking to computers. 
Mr. Negroponte began predicting in the 1970s that computers would understand human speech and talk back to them within 10 years. Today, it's still difficult to make computers understand a range of unfamiliar speakers with different accents and intonations. Mr. Negroponte would welcome a breakthrough. "I've been wrong for a long time," he says.

Best from the past: Different media, such as text and audio, would converge digitally. 
The idea is common today: You can e-mail a music clip to a friend just as easily as you can send them a text message. Mr. Negroponte says he began talking about this in 1977. "Bits are bits, whether they're a text bit or an audio bit," he says.

Today's favorite: Grass-roots wireless services could in some ways overtake traditional telecom operators. 
Mr. Negroponte notes the rapid spread of inexpensive wireless data networks using a technology known as 802.11 or "Wi-fi," particularly in the U.S. The short-range networks, which cost a few hundred euros to get up and running, allow data transfer at speeds hundreds of times faster than most cellular connections today. You can make voice calls, too, using special software, though the quality isn't always that great. "Telecom could invert itself and become a bottom-up phenomenon," he says.

Lester Thurow
Professor of management and economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management

Worst prediction: Japan would recover quickly from a 1991 financial crisis. 
When Mr. Thurow published "Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe, and America" in 1992, he ignored any long-term impact of the financial sector meltdown in Japan. He assumed the economy would take it in stride, much as the U.S. absorbed its savings-and-loan crisis in the 1980s. He was wrong. Japan has been through three brutal recessions since then and is struggling.

Best from the past: Predictions on the U.S. economic outlook for 1965. 
Mr. Thurow says in late 1964 he correctly predicted the U.S. economic performance for the following year, including such indicators as employment, inflation and economic growth rates. At the time, he was working for President Lyndon Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers and helped write its annual report. Mr. Thurow says his accomplishment would be impossible today, given the influence of so many international elements on the domestic US economy.

Today's favorite: Biotechnology advances will radically transform our world and our bodies. 
Mr. Thurow says higher IQs and more beautiful children will be among the benefits of biotech advances. "For the first time in history, people will be able to change themselves," he says.

Glover Ferguson
Chief scientist, Accenture

Worst prediction: Computer-aided software engineering would be the future of programming. 
Until 1994, Mr. Ferguson spent six years helping develop a programming system based on linked software building blocks. The idea, known as computer-aided software engineering, was that you could change one of the programming elements and the changes would be instantly reflected wherever they appeared in the rest of the program. Its weakness was that it required you to constantly define any new processes you wanted the software to handle. "Instead of being something that allowed you to go fast, it caused you to go slow," he says.

Best from the past: Services would trump products in commanding value. 
Mr. Ferguson says in 1996 he began pushing the idea that goods would become commodities, with the focus shifting to services. Among other things, that's the logic behind all of the big computer makers' drives to pump up their technology services activities, where the likes of IBM actually make most of their profits.

Today's favorite: "Insight" is the next key to competitive advantage. 
Mr. Ferguson says services will become commodities, too. Insight is essentially a breakthrough analysis of a situation you keep secret and use to beat rivals. So, a bank might see a baby crib purchase on a customer's credit-card bill and know from previous analysis the majority of people buying cribs are having their first babies. There's a predictable progression of needs and purchases, including a bigger home, life insurance and so on. The bank can exploit that knowledge to cater to the customer. But it needs to keep the insight to itself.

Alan Nugent
Chief technology officer, Novell

Worst prediction: Computers would think and talk to users. 
Like Mr. Negroponte, Mr. Nugent thought people would be conversing with their computers years ago. He also thought computers would be able to emulate human thought. He says IBM's champion chess-playing computer is evidence of the progress that has been made, but the field still falls short of early expectations.

Best from the past: The Unix operating system had a future. 
Starting as a student programmer in the early 1970s, Mr. Nugent began working on the Unix operating system. He went on to work on Hewlett-Packard's first commercial Unix product and then for a number of start-ups focused on the system. "I spent a lot of my time trying to make it useful," Mr. Nugent says. Since then, Unix-based systems have become one of the main standards for big companies.

Today's favorite: Web services will come of age. 
Web services are supposed to turn the Internet into a vast, omnipotent computer that executives can use to run their businesses and consumers can tap to organize their everyday lives. A Web service might alert you - on your computer or cell phone, depending on where you are - if a flight you're booked on is delayed and then let you know how your connecting flight on another carrier might be affected.

Peter Cochrane
Director ConceptLabs; former chief technologist, British Telecommunications PLC

Worst prediction: Voice over Internet protocol technology would fall flat. 
Mr. Cochrane says 10 years ago he was extremely skeptical of the voice over Internet protocol systems that let people make voice telephone calls over data networks. He thought the networks couldn't handle it. Now he concedes that it's been successful at least on single data networks, like those used within a company.

Best from the past: London and Birmingham would be connected by optical fiber, with no gear to amplify the signal in between. 
Mr. Cochrane says he predicted about 20 years ago that technological advances would allow an optical signal to pass the more than 160 kilometres from London to Birmingham without any extra equipment in between. At the time, the practice was to install "repeater" hardware every eight kilometres to boost the signal to the next repeater. "It's taken about 15 years to come true," he says.

Today's favorite: Customers will take over local telecommunications. 
Like Mr. Negroponte, Mr. Cochrane predicts a revolution in the telecom world. He thinks customers will shift away from the operators, mostly former monopolies, that own the telephone lines leading up to people's homes and businesses. "In Italy, in the U.K. and in the Netherlands, you have municipal authorities, universities and companies laying their own fiber because they're being charged so much for telephone services," Mr. Cochrane says.

Michael Earl
Dean, Templeton College, University of Oxford; professor of information management

Worst prediction: Electronic commerce would pay off broadly and quickly. 
Mr. Earl isn't alone in getting caught up in electronic-commerce hype a few years back. But in the end, Amazon.com didn't put real-world bookstores out of business and dealers are still moving cars through their lots. While businesses are quietly linking their computer systems together, the vast expectations for online exchanges and other exotic e-commerce link-ups have all but fizzled away.

Best from the past: Information management was an academic discipline. 
At Oxford during the 1970s, Mr. Earl fought to get information management the study of how businesses manage information technology - on the syllabus and in the early 1990s helped put it on London Business School's core curriculum. In 1984, he founded an information-management research centre at Oxford. "I saw early on that IT would be hugely important in business, it would change the way businesses compete, and it would be a business and management issue," Mr. Earl says.

Today's favorite: The Internet will ultimately be more about information than transactions. 
Mr. Earl says decades from now people will look back and conclude that the real innovation of the Internet is how it allows new ways to present and exchange information. "As an information medium, you will say that's what's new," Mr. Earl says.