Spam is gone and other tech truisms

willrogersAs the American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.  And as the late Will Rogers (left) remarked, It isn’t what we don’t know that causes us trouble, it’s what we do know that just ain’t so.

In that vein, Cody Willard at Marketwatch just published a mildly amusing post, “Top 10 Dumbest Tech Predictions of All Time.”  A few entries are depressingly predictable such as comments disparaging the utility of the telephone or computer.  Overall, though, it’s worth reading as a window into the problems of lineal thinking when confronting a dynamic industry.

Alas, when it comes to technology ideas, there’s no shortage of bad ideas.  Remember Flooz?  Mercata?  Didn’t think so.  Still, it’s worth adding two recent gems to Willard’s list including:

“By joining forces with Time Warner, we will fundamentally change the way people get information, communicate with others, buy products and are entertained – providing far-reaching benefits to our customers and shareholders.” That was Steve Case on January 10, 2000 announcing the AOL/TimeWarner merger that he and Ken Novack had been pushing.  Further comment superfluous.

“Two years from now, spam will be solved.” That was Bill Gates speaking to the BBC at Davos in 2004.  Alas, his prediction is just slightly off — to the tune of about 70 billion a day, according to this article in The New York Times.  It must’ve been the altitude.

This farce could go on and on since chronicling absurd tech predictions is like shooting fish in a barrel.  For the ultimate chronology of awful (and mostly hilarious) predictions, check out The Experts Speak by Chris Cerf and Victor Navasky.

Lies, Damned Lies and…

(New York) Two articles this morning show the fun to be had with number-tossing.

First, there’s a new mobile phone survey from ChangeWave Research that touts a “250 percent increase” in mobile users’ opting for Google’s Android OS. Of those planning on buying a smartphone, 21 percent said they expected to purchase one using Android compared with 6 percent in September. It’s a solid gain but not nearly as impressive as ChangeWave hype:

“Monstrous… [The] change rivals anything that we’ve seen in the last three years of the smartphone market,” said Paul Carton, ChangeWave’s director of research, adding that the sudden surge in consumer interest in Android had “roiled” the market.

By “last three years,” Carton presumably means “since the iPhone.” Anyway, what’s so amusing – coming from a “director of research,” no less – is the way he spins a decent-but-expected growth rate. The company’s survey comes on the heels of the estimated $100 million that Verizon and Motorola spent promoting the Droid. So going from a small base of 6 percent to 21 percent hardly seems “monstrous.” Moreover, the “250 percent” figure is what happens when you begin with such a small number.

And “roiled” the market? Note to ChangeWave’s PR Department: Stop the hyperventilating. No one who understands the industry believes you.

This brings back memories of the Internet’s biggest sham from the late 1990s – that data traffic was supposedly doubling every quarter. It happened once or twice around 1996 when AOL had 1+M subscribers and was ramping up quickly. But after that, the ability to doubling off of a large base became a fantasy.

Next up is Suzanne Vranica’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Dr Pepper Buys Its First Super Bowl Spot,” which begins, “In an effort to drum up more interest in its recently launched Dr Pepper Cherry, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. has bought advertising time during Super Bowl XLIV.” The purchase marks the first time in the company’s 125-year history that Dr Pepper will advertise during the National Football League championship, which will be broadcast by CBS Corp. on Feb 7.

First time in 125 years? Nice, except that the NFL didn’t come into existence until about 1920. Anyway, here’s the commercial, which is pretty funny.

For the Record

Filed under: America Online

Never let it be said that I didn’t correct the record when necessary. Take my November 1 blog, “Mozilla’s Follies” in which I wrote that America Online’s COO Bob Pittman “was negotiating to merge with TimeWarner.” My mistake. Although Pittman clearly favored the deal, it was Steve Case and Ken Novack who led AOL’s negotiating team.

Mozilla’s Follies

(New York) Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker and John Lilly are responsible for a great product — Firefox, the Mac version of which has been my default browser for three years. But when it comes to federal Internet regulation, Ms. Baker and Mr. Lilly seem to have fallen into the classic “Steve Case” trap.

Back in the 1990s, Case led America Online when it was the Net’s online Colossus. But he let a certain starry eyed, high-ranking executive talk him into becoming the ISP point person on the cable open access debate then raging at the FCC. But at the same time Case was demanding that the FCC regulate cable access, COO Bob Pittman was negotiating to merge with TimeWarner. Oops. The resulting confusion delayed the companies’ merger and underscored how confused its new corporate mission had become.

Hard as it is to believe, just ten years ago, the phrase “AOL stock options” was the stuff of retirement dreams, not a punch line.

Back to Mozilla’s Baker and Lilly. In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, they urge the FCC to regulate “neutrality” over the Net. But by placing their own company as the reason for new regulation, they actually underscore regulation’s true problem. To see why, look at three common types of downloads:

  • Not time-sensitive. When you click on a website’s .exe or .dmg download link, there’s no real difference to you whether it downloads in 15 seconds or 20 seconds.
  • Partially time-sensitive. Some applications (e.g., file-sharing programs) require a download to be completed within a certain time. But the data transmission doesn’t have to be constant. In other words, if a file needs to be downloaded in a minute, there’s no downside if half the data is downloaded in the first 10 seconds, while the remaining half is stretched over the other 50 seconds.
  • Time- and latency-sensitive. This is the Big Enchilada. For the web’s biggest new apps (primarily movie streams, IPTV and VoIP), you not only need rapid service but also constancy of transmission speed! The scenario in the one-minute download above won’t work with a call or an HD stream because you not only need a high average speed, you also need a constant speed.

But under Lilly’s and Baker’s theory, the HD stream will only transmit as fast as the Mozilla download — even if the customer is willing to pay more! This is a totally nonsensical view of the Internet. Essentially, Lilly and Baker are trying to expand a regulatory structure meant for dial-up modems to tomorrow’s high-speed systems. Yes, that protects their own turf but it shuts off one of the most obvious ways the country has to finance the broadband build-out.

Lilly and Baker should stick to improving their browser, rather than becoming enmeshed in a nasty policy fight that doesn’t even involve their company. That’s some advice that Steve Case probably wished he’d followed.