Top 10 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time

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Not everyone can predict the future like a groundhog on Groundhog Day...

That's especially true when it comes to the unpredictable world of tech. Not only is technology evolving rapidly, but it can also pivot drastically as new players or innovations shake up the industry. 

You only have to look at the recent launch of AI to understand this. Before the launch of ChatGPT in 2022, it was considered by many outside of the tech space as belonging to the realm of science fiction rather than as a tool of today. 

Now everything is ‘powered by AI’ – and it seems like every tech company and its dog is investing in new AI initiatives and developing their large language models (LLMs) and ML-powered technologies. 

It’s not the first time such a shift in technology has revolutionized the industry either. Before everyone was talking about AI, they were talking about the Metaverse, and before that, it was cloud computing, smartphones, the internet, and the list goes on

So if tech trends can shift so fast, why bother predicting what comes next?

Worst Tech Precitions in History

Despite how fast technology can evolve, there have been many brave souls who have attempted to predict where the industry is heading. Many of these predictions end up being correct – at least in some capacity. Others miss the mark completely. 

But then some predictions – even from one of the most influential figures in tech – get it so spectacularly wrong that they sound ridiculous years on.

In this list, we’ll be counting down ten of these terrible tech predictions, exploring who said them and how they became known as the worst tech predictions in history

"Apple will probably never come out with a cell phone” – David Pogue, 2006. 

When you think of Apple, the first thing you think about is the iPhone. But in 2006, the idea of Apple creating a smartphone seemed ludicrous – at least to David Pogue from the New York Times. In a New York Times article called “iPhone Rumours” published on September 27, 2006, the technology writer and writer was convinced that there was no way Apple could bring out cell phones due to the veto power carriers had over technology companies at the time. 

Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cellphone. My answer is, Probably never. I cannot imagine Apple giving veto power to ANYONE over its software design. It just ain’t gonna happen

Of course, we now know Apple did release the iPhone less than a year after Pogue’s original quote revolutionizing the smartphone industry and becoming one of the most popular smartphones in the world. Pogue wasn’t alone in thinking this. Many experts at the time just couldn’t imagine Apple allowing carriers to dictate the design of their phones or producing something as revolutionary as the iPhone. 

“The Internet will collapse in 1996" – Robert Metcalfe, 1995

Robert Metcalfe, the co-inventor of Ethernet, made a hilarious bad prediction about the internet's capacity in 1995. The quote comes from a 1995 article titled "From the Ether: Predicting the Internet's Catastrophic Collapse and Ghost Sites Galore in 1996" published in InfoWorld. Metcalfe believed the internet's rapid growth would overload the system, leading to a spectacular crash in 1996. He also cited concerns about scalability, lack of clear metrics for advertising, and security issues.

Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet, which only just recently got this section here in InfoWorld, will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.

Of course, the Internet did not collapse in 1996. Despite being such a prominent figure in the development of internet access, Metcalfe underestimated the ingenuity of engineers who constantly improved internet infrastructure to keep it running. He did literally eat his words when the internet didn’t collapse in 1996 though, humorously blending a copy of his article and drinking it in 1997 to prove just how wrong his prediction had been. 

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are physically impossible” - Lord Kelvin, 1895

There were several scientists and engineers who said that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers’ first flight. S Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895, the physicist and thermodynamics expert said that it would be impossible to create an aeroplane due to its weight. 

Heavier-than-air flying machines are physically impossible.

The problem was set out in 1716 by the scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg in an article describing a design for a flying machine. Swedenborg wrote: “It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body.” People had been flying in balloons since the late eighteenth century, and by the late 1800s, these were controllable. But even when Kelvin made his infamous statement, scientists and engineers were closing rapidly on the goal of heavier-than-air flight. Just four years after his prediction, the Wright Brothers would prove him wrong with their first successful flight.

"Subscription models for music are bankrupt" – Steve Jobs, 2003

“Music has had a rich history of change, some of which we’ve played a part in,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook on June 8 as he presented Apple Music, the company’s new subscription streaming service. But back in 2003, Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs did not share the same faith in music streaming subscriptions as Cook did. His alternative was selling downloadable songs for 99 cents each. Jobs, who died in 2011, believed that people “don’t want to rent music” because unlike movies or television shows, they listen to their favourite songs repeatedly.

The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful. If it costs you $10 a month, or over $100 a year, for a subscription fee to rent that song, that means for me to listen to my favorite song, in 10 years I paid over $1,000 in subscription fees to listen to my favorite song 10 years from now, and that just doesn’t fly with customers. They don’t want subscriptions.

Jobs was wrong, of course. And his company’s own music streaming service is now one of the most popular music platforms in the world, changing the way we listen to music.

There is no chance the iPhone ever gaining significant market share - Steve Ballmer, 2007

While many jaws dropped when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs debuted the iPhone 10 years ago today, not everyone was sold on the idea. Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, was one of those people. The CEO completely underestimated the success of the iPhone in 2007, dismissing its lack of a physical keyboard and high price point and predicting it would never gain significant market share.

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item.

Of course, he was spectacularly wrong. the iPhone went on to become the most successful smartphone in history, revolutionizing the mobile phone industry. To be fair, the iPhone’s widespread popularity came after Apple changed the economics to bring the subsidized price of an iPhone below $300. It’s now sold more than one billion of the devices and, in the process, became the world's most highly valued company.

"The internet will fade away because most people have nothing to say to each other" – Paul Krugman, 1998

Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, made a bad prediction about the internet in 1998. During the dot-com bubble, he was convinced that the internet would collapse simply because people had no reason to talk to each other online. To be fair, around this time people were thinking the singularity was around the corner, and that 90% of the GNP would be done through websites. Some people argue that Krugman was specifying that this was a bubble, rather than as revolutionary as some people were saying.

The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in 'Metcalfe's law'–which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants–becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine's.

Either way, this prediction was wildly inaccurate. Internet growth has done nothing but boom since the late 1990s. And while the fax machine was a crucial innovation that increased the speed and affordability of inter-office communications everywhere, the economic effects of the Internet – which has come to play a role in virtually every aspect of life in every developed country – have been nothing but transformative.

"Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop” – Time Magazine, 1966

While it is true that many people still like to leave their homes and see products first-hand, online shopping has completely taken over shopping as we know it. But looking back 50 years, not everyone thought that remote shopping would catch on – not just because the technology was not ready for it, but because no one would care for it. Time Magazine was one of these critics. In a 1966 essay called "The Futurists”, it made the bold predictions that remote shopping was entirely possible, but it would never catch on because “women like to get out of the house”

Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop – because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.

Of course, Time Magazine was wrong, and its prediction is outdated. It dramatically underestimated the appeal of convenience and selection that remote shopping offers. Interestingly, Time itself acknowledged this misstep in a 2011 article titled "Online Shopping Will Flop,” which celebrates the continued success of online shopping.

“Your mail will be delivered within hours by guided missiles” – Arthur Summerfield, 1959

Today you might prefer to send a WhatsApp message over writing a letter, but back in the 1950s, mail was one of the few ways to communicate and billions of people relied of global mailing systems to communicate with each other. The only issue was that mailing systems were far too slow, and tech-savvy people at the time were looking for ways to speed the system up. One infamous idea came from Arthur Summerfield, the U.S. Postmaster General at the time, who boldly claimed that "before man reaches the moon," mail would be delivered across vast distances like New York to Australia within hours using guided missiles. This was seen as a glimpse into a futuristic and efficient postal system.

Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.

This might seem like a crazy prediction to make now, but the 1950s It was a period of great optimism about technological advancements, particularly in rockets and missiles. The Space Race was heating up, and Summerfield envisioned the postal service using this technology for super-fast mail delivery. Too bad we decided to go digital rather than sending guided missiles.

“Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures”  – Darryl Zanuck, 1946. 

While online streaming is slowly becoming the new norm, almost every home in the world has still has a television in it. But before the television screen hit living rooms around the world, many didn’t think the tech would last. Darryl F. Zanuck, a Hollywood mogul and head of 20th Century Fox, was one of them Television was still in its early stages, with limited programming and a high price tag for sets and Zanuck, likely biased towards the established film industry, underestimated television's potential so much that he thought it wouldn’t even last a year. 

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.

He couldn’t be more wrong, of course. But you have to remember that in the early days of television, Sets were expensive, programming was limited, and content quality was far from what we see today. He also couldn't have foreseen the advancements in technology that would make television a dominant form of entertainment. Colour broadcasts, improved picture quality, diverse programming options, and the rise of cable and satellite have made television one of the most accessible technologies in the world. 

"The automobile is only a novelty – a fad” – President of the Michigan Savings Bank, 1903

For good or for bad, cars are by far the main mode of transportation for people around the world. But before the age of the automobile, many people were sceptical about the idea of a horseless carriage being used for transportation. The president of the the Michigan Savings Bank was one of them, and in 1903 he advised Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company because he believed it was just a fad. 

You see all those people on their bicycles riding along the boulevard? There is not as many as there was a year ago. The novelty is wearing off; they are losing interest. That’s just the way it will be with automobiles. People will get the fever; and later they will throw them away. My advice is not to buy the stock. You might make money for a year or two, but in the end you would lose everything you put in. The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.

To be fair, horses were the dominant mode of transportation at the time, and the automobile was still in its early stages and seen as a luxury for the wealthy, not a practical means of transportation for the masses. Rackham, thankfully, ignored the banker's advice and invested in Ford. Ford would revolutionize transportation, displacing the horse as the primary mode of travel. This quote serves as a reminder of the difficulty of predicting the future of disruptive technologies and is largely considered one of the worst tech predictions ever made