Bill Gates has recently been prognosticating all over the place, offering his thoughts on the future of newspapers, television, advertising, communications, telephones and many other areas of business and technology.
But how good are his predictions, really?
As luck would have it, there are plenty of media clippings, memos, books and official transcripts for comparing the Microsoft Corp. chairman's past comments with the harsh reality of 2007. And the result is a mixed bag. In some of his previous forecasts, Gates was right on the mark, and in others, well, he wasn't even close.
Here's a sampling:
Microsoft CEO Summit, 1997: "Within 10 years the majority of all adults will be using electronic mail and living a form of that Web lifestyle."
This prediction would have been more bold if Gates had made it two years earlier, but nevertheless, it turned out to be correct. A December 2006 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Program found that 70 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet, and more than 90 percent of those Internet users send or read e-mail.
World Economic Forum, 2004: "Two years from now, spam will be solved."
Maybe it seemed like a safe thing to say at the time.
When the two years were up, Microsoft tried to defend Gates' remarks by pointing to advances in e-mail filtering technologies. But outside experts scoffed at the notion that the problem had been "solved," citing factors including the huge volume of spam as a portion of overall e-mail traffic on the Internet.
Foreword to the OS/2 Programmer's Guide, 1987: "I believe OS/2 is destined to be the most important operating system, and possibly program, of all time."
This one is so bold that it almost sounds like an urban legend, but it was, in fact, what Gates wrote in the foreword to OS/2 design leader Ed Iacobucci's book about IBM's operating system. What's more, it was the opening line.
While OS/2 was an important program, Microsoft's own Windows operating system now runs more than 90 percent of the world's personal computers.
Comdex, 1996: Speaking about newspapers, Gates predicted that the Web would ultimately create a "substitution effect," shifting readers away from print and onto Web sites. Of course, that has proved to be true, with many people now getting their news online, not only from newspapers but from many other sources.
In fact, Gates' comments back then were downright mild compared with his remarks about the newspaper industry at a conference two weeks ago.
Speaking May 8 in Seattle, he observed that the newspaper industry is facing a "tough, wrenching change," because "the number of people who actually buy, subscribe to the newspaper and read it has started an inexorable decline."
"Internet Tidal Wave," 1995: This seminal Gates memo is best known for laying out Microsoft's belated strategy to take on the Web -- and Netscape -- but it also included an interesting bullet point noting the importance of search engines.
As it turned out, Gates was right about that, but Microsoft as a whole would miss the mark, choosing to license search and online advertising technologies from others before realizing its mistake. Two years after launching its own search engine, the company is still a distant third to Google and Yahoo in that critical market.
"The Road Ahead," 1995: This Gates book had many predictions about technology, some of them prescient: "You'll watch a program when it's convenient for you instead of when a broadcaster chooses to air it. You'll shop, order food, contact friends, or publish information for others to use when and as you want to."
Others have proved too ambitious, at least so far: "When wallet PCs have become ubiquitous, we can eliminate the bottlenecks that plague airport terminals, theaters and other places where people queue up to show their identification or a ticket."
Comdex, 2001: "So next year a lot of people in the audience, I hope, will be taking their notes with those Tablet PCs."
The use of the phrase "I hope" makes this one more aspirational than predictive, but any way you slice it, Gates was overestimating the market for the pen-based computers. Microsoft has tried to boost usage, most recently by incorporating Tablet PC features into advanced Windows Vista versions, but the overall growth in the adoption of tablet functions hasn't been what the company originally hoped.
Even at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Los Angeles last week, most of the hardware and technology experts in attendance were pecking away at their keyboards, not scribbling on their screens in digital ink.
What Gates didn't predict: One quote frequently attributed to the Microsoft chairman is that "640K of memory should be enough for anybody."
However, Gates has long denied ever saying it, and no evidence has ever surfaced to show that he did. In 1996, when Gates was writing a syndicated newspaper column, a reader asked about the quote, and he replied, "No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time."
"I've said some stupid things and some wrong things," he wrote, "but not that."
GATES ON THE FUTURE
In his recent public appearances, Bill Gates has offered several attention-getting predictions about the future of business and technology. Among them:
On the future of media: "Reading is going to go completely online. ... Today, for people who read newspapers and magazines, even the most avid PC user probably still does quite a bit of reading on print. As the device moves down in size and simplicity, that will change, and so somewhere in the next five-year period we'll hit that transition point, and things will be even more dramatic than they are today."
On Internet Protocol Television: "The end-user experience and the creativity, the new content that will emerge using the capabilities of this environment will be so much dramatically better that broadcast TV will not be competitive. And in this environment, the ads will be targeted, not just targeted to the neighborhood level, but targeted to the viewer."
On online business listings: "The Yellow Pages are going to be used less and less. ... These things always take time, but Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero -- near zero -- over the next five years."
On communications: "We don't see the desk phone existing as a separate device in the future. Between what's going on with mobile phones and PC peripherals, and the richness of telephony being on the Internet and connecting up not just voice but also screen sharing, video, software-driven richness in those communications interactions, the phone is going to be the PC; the PC is going to be the phone."