Who predicted predictive text?

POCKET PITA: Predicting the smartphone.

AN IBM chairman uttered the IT industry’s most hopeless prediction ever in the 1940’s: ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.’ Oops.

Movie mogul Darryl Zanuck thought television was a passing fad. An InfoWorld columnist believed the internet would fizzle out by 1996, a Microsoft executive said Apple was as good as dead in 1997, and Bill Gates insisted we would solve spam by 2006.

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Prediction is notoriously difficult, especially if it’s about the future. I can’t even predict what socks I’m going to wear.

We may not be jet-packing to work (yet), nor commuting to other planets as so many 20th century pundits thought we would by now. But an old tech article recently went viral given the uncanny prescience of its predictions. 

American science fiction writer David Gerrold actually foresaw smartphones, exactly how they would work, and even how annoying we’d eventually find them.

In a 1999 interview he forecast that his phone would be merged with ‘a pocket organiser, a beeper, a calculator, a digital camera, a pocket tape recorder, a music player and a colour television, all fitting in a box smaller than a deck of cards.’ 

He went on to predict how it would connect wirelessly and function as a desktop system connecting to full-sized screens, with speech recognition, email, finding restaurants and booking hotels.

Like Douglas Adams’ fictional Babelfish, Gerrold’s future wonder could actually translate the world’s languages. With one pioneering exception today’s smartphone doesn’t connect to a keyboard and monitor and hey-presto it’s a desktop computer as he predicted, but give it a few years.

Remember that Gerrold’s visionary view was delivered a full eight years before the iPhone launched the smartphone era engulfing us today. And yes, he saw its downsides too.

‘I would call this device a Personal Information Telecommunications Agent, or Pita for short,’ he said. ‘The acronym can also stand for Pain In The Ass, which it’s equally likely to be, because having all that connectivity is going to destroy what’s left of everyone’s privacy.’

No, really? 

While Gerrold could reveal the future without either a crystal-ball nor his palm being crossed with silver, it’s astonishing just how many people at the very top of the industry show less prescience than a haddock.

Pride of place in the Prediction Hall of Shame absolutely has to go to Digital Equipment Corporation’s chairman Ken Olsen. His spectacularly foolish 1977 prediction: ‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.’ Yeah, right.

Testing Tesla 

WHEN it comes to predictions, Serbian visionary Nikola Tesla takes the trophy. 

Amazingly, he said this nearly a century ago (1926): 

‘When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. 

‘Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. 

‘A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.’ 



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