Technology Predictions

Alexander_Crystal_SeerThroughout history there are examples of people publicly declaring that something wasn’t possible and then a few years later the predicted impossible happened. There are some well-known examples of this in our own industry. Consider the following:

In 1961 Tunis Craven, an FCC Commissioner said, “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.” Four years later the first commercial communications satellite was launched.

In 1878 Sir William Preece, the chief engineer of the British Post Office declared, “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

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

The famous movie producer Darryl Zanuck was quoted in 1946 as saying, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

In possibly the most famously wrong technology quote Bill Gates said, “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.”

Along the same lines, Ken Olson, the President of Digital Equipment Corporation and a major manufacturer of mainframes said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

Our industry is full of predictions about the future. You always have to wonder which of these predictions will come true and which will prove to be totally wrong. It seems predictions are of two types. Some predictions are made about working technologies that aren’t going to make a dent in the marketplace. Our technology history is full of devices that nobody wanted to buy. But there are also many predictions made, like the examples above, about the limitations of technology and what is possible.

I know that technology improvements have taken me by surprise a few times. If in the early 2000s you would have asked me to predict the top data speeds that could be achieved on telephone copper or on coax I would have underestimated the speeds by a magnitude or more. At that time scientists in the labs all said that there were insurmountable interference issues that made higher frequencies unusable on both kinds of copper.

But some smart scientists doggedly worked on these problems and today we have that is putting gigabit speeds for short distances over telephone copper. And we have the potential for incredibly fast speeds on coax. I’ve witnessed a lab test that put 6 gigabits through a piece of coax.

I make a lot of predictions in this blog. But one thing I’ve learned is that you should never say never when it comes to technology (well, except maybe for tabletop fusion power). Instead predictions are better made talking about the likelihood of something being achieved in the foreseeable future versus the distant future.

A good example of this is gigabit cellular service. Unfortunately some of the press has confused millimeter wave wireless with 5G cellular and there are articles all over the web talking about the coming gigabit cellular service. Is gigabit cellular possible? I would venture to say that in a lab setting with a small number of phones this might be possible today or in the near future.

But there are physics limitations that limit gigabit wireless speeds to short distances and for this technology to ever become pervasive we would have to massively rework all cellular infrastructure to literally surround ourselves with cellular transmitters. It is that limitation that means that this is an extremely unlikely application within any reasonable time frame. It’s certainly possible someday that we might be surrounded by tiny IoT devices that can somehow work as a mesh network to bounce around fast data signals. But there are a whole lot of technology breakthroughs needed first to implement such a technology. So is gigabit wireless possible – I think it is. Will we see it in our lifetimes other than perhaps in a few controlled settings – I predict not. Guess we’ll have to wait to see if I’m right.

One thought on “Technology Predictions

  1. I once read that McKinsey advised AT&T that there would never be more than one million mobile phones in the USA. AT&T duly sold of this small side business only to have to buy it back later for a four(?) billion dollars. And back in those days four billion dollars was _really_ worth 4 billion.

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