Volume 29 Number 12
Don't Get Me Started : My Biggest Misteaks
David Platt | December 2014
I know I must seem omniscient to you. Because I get to pick my topics, my predictions in this column always come true—for example, last November I predicted that I wouldn’t be named the new president of Microsoft.
I know you’ll be astounded to hear that I’ve actually made one or two mistakes in my life, blown calls on the future of technology that I didn’t initially see the use of, but which later evolved to become ubiquitous. Perhaps not on the scale of Bill Gates saying, “No one would ever need a computer with more than 640k of memory,” but still: Here are some of the biggest ones that I’ve blown.
A Microsoft evangelist was talking to a small group of us digerati in 2001, explaining their upcoming Web platform, code-named “HailStorm” (bit.ly/XOO9Z3). She said, “Your PC will be able call your kids’ school’s computer and automatically download their schedules into your Outlook so you’ll know when vacations are.” I exploded at her: “What planet are you on?” I thought HailStorm was a classic example of Microsoft hyper-geeks building something that they themselves would like, and thinking the world would like it because users are just like them. Ubiquitous downloadable schedules didn’t happen with the single-vendor, pay-only plans that Microsoft then had for HailStorm. But with the vendor-independent RFC 5545 calendar data standard, and with smartphones in everyone’s pockets, online schedules such as Google Calendar now pervade our lives. Oops.
I was a judge at the first Imagine Cup finals in Barcelona in 2003. The team from Singapore created a supermarket cart with a built-in scanner so customers could tally up their groceries as they shopped. Their handling of discount coupons almost sent me through the ceiling. The team expected users to carry a Pocket PC, with which they would scan a bar code on a poster. The Pocket PC would then contact the vendor’s Web site, display more information about the product and provide a discount coupon. I whacked them for it in the judging, and also in my book, “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006). I thought, “Who, but a pitiful geek like you, is going to carry a bar code scanner in his pocket?” But now that everyone carries a smartphone with a camera, QR codes appear on almost everything, even tombstones (bit.ly/1vij0Ls). Double oops.
My biggest public blunder ever has to be my prediction that the 2007 launch of the Apple iPhone would crash in flames. I thought the cellular bandwidth was too low, the price too high, the carrier (AT&T) too lame and the apps too stupid (see my December 2010 column at msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/gg490348). And I thought that users would reject a touchscreen in place of physical buttons. I used deliberately inflammatory language to get attention, saying that the iPhone would be “the biggest flop since ‘Ishtar’ and ‘Waterworld’ combined.” With typical restraint, I wrote that there was no way the iPhone could meet its expectations, because “God Himself could not build a phone that would live up to all the hype that the iPhone has gotten.” (That got me some flak from religiously minded readers.)
We all know how that prognostication turned out. The iPhone soared (total sales topped 500 million last spring), smartphones became ubiquitous (with fascinating changes to society, see my February 2012 column at msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/hh781031), and I got ripped up one side of the Internet and down the other. Hey, as my book agent always says, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Just make sure they spell your name right.”
On the five-year anniversary of the iPhone’s launch, a reporter called me up for his story on pundits who foolishly predicted its failure (see bit.ly/1q1g3vu). “What do you have to say for yourself?” he asked me. Having had four-and-a-half years to consider that question, I replied with the words, which if they ever name a university after me (prediction: don’t hold your breath), will be inscribed in stone above the entrance: “Saepe fallitur, numquam in dubium.”
“Often mistaken, never in doubt.”
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.