When Predictions Go Right … And Not So Right

2019 predictions

Predicting the future is incredibly hard work. Nostradamus — routinely counted as one of history’s better prestidigitators — wrote 942 poetic quatrains of prophecy. Depending on how liberal one wants to be in connecting his texts to history, a generous reading says Nostradamus got it right about 25 times.

That means reading the future is so hard that getting it right 2.6 percent of the time is good enough to be one of the all-time greats.

Luckily, most people aren’t watching predictions quite as closely as they’ve watched Nostradamus’. Every year, coming off the excitement of the ball dropping and the holiday season ending, we all feel tempted to glance at our crystal balls and take a shot at predicting the future. Some of us are better at it than others, but it mostly doesn’t matter because, by the time the next New Year’s has rolled around, our worst predictions have been forgotten by almost everyone.

Some predictions, however, are so outstanding — either in their wrongness or their rightness — that history has held on to them. For example, according to Forbes, in 1955, Lewyt Vacuum Cleaner company President Alex Lewyt predicted that, within 10 years, Americans would be cleaning their homes with nuclear-powered vacuums. That product never quite made it to market.

Disappointed now? Well, the nuclear vacuum cleaner wasn’t the most outlandish technological advancement the ’50s promised and failed to deliver. No, that honor belongs to rocket mail.

“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,” U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield promised the world in 1959, Forbes cited.

We may have stood on the threshold, but, tragically, we never made it through the door. We have drones now, but they seem disappointing next to the notion of rocket-powered mail.

Lest one think that predicting the future wrong was simply a problem that plagued the past, PYMNTS’ extensive research into the subject would indicate otherwise.

For example, the most famously wrong prediction about the internet made in 1995 came care of Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, who said the internet “will soon go spectacularly supernova and, in 1996, catastrophically collapse.” That didn’t happen, obviously.

Since that prediction was so spectacularly incorrect, it means 1995’s worst prediction is often overlooked. It came in the form of an editorial written for Newsweek by Astronomer and Author Clifford Stoll, and was titled “The Internet, Bah!” In it, he argued that the web was more a fad than a force for change in the world — and that if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that eCommerce was never, ever, ever going to become a thing. Ever.

“We’re promised instant catalog shopping — just point and click for great deals,” Stoll wrote. “We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So, how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the internet (which there isn’t), the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”

In fairness, it was 1995  Amazon was a year old and a bookseller online. There was no Google-ing anything, and PayPal was still three years away from being a thing. Still, looking at the results from Black Friday alone (not to mention all the articles about the mall apocalypse), we are guessing Mr. Stoll’s mall no longer does more business over the weekend than the internet does in a month. In fact, it is possible that whatever mall was local in 1995, no longer exists in 2019.

Still, not everyone who tried to predict the future from the 1990s did a terrible job. Bill Gates, for example, managed to hit two pretty big predictions in 1999 about the future of the web and digital commerce on it.

“People will pay their bills, take care of their finances, and communicate with their doctors over the internet,” he predicted.

The fact that Gates was right about the first two is arguable, what with the explosion of online mobile banking, digital payments and tech-based financial services. As of 2018, there are very few financial functions left that one cannot manage with a laptop or a smartphone. The medical prediction was a bit ahead of its time — people mostly do not connect with their doctors digitally. However, with the emergence of firms and platform like Doctor on Demand, Nurx and TAO emerging, and snapping up funding and partnerships? Stay tuned — that one might still have time to come true.

Gates also predicted, “‘Personal companions’ will be developed. They will connect and sync all your devices in a smart way, whether they are at home or in the office, and allow them to exchange data. The device will check your email or notifications, and present the information that you need. When you go to the store, you can tell it what recipes you want to prepare, and it will generate a list of ingredients that you need to pick up. It will inform all the devices that you use of your purchases and schedule, allowing them to automatically adjust to what you’re doing.”

Here, Gates predicted Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana. He forgot to mention the part about when the voice assistant has the goods one added to their shopping list shipped directly to their home.

Yet, as well as Bill Gates did in 1999, predicting the future when he was CEO of Microsoft, his replacement for the job wasn’t quite the same tea leaves reader. As the aughts were coming to an end, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had two big misses when it came to underestimating the competition. The iPhone, for example, didn’t impress him much.

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” Ballmer noted in 2007, according to Forbes.

Given that over 1 billion iPhones have been sold, and that Apple introduced the world to a phone that connected to the internet with an app store (and, in so doing, grew to become the first trillion-dollar company), it is safe to say that his was not a great prediction for the 2010s.

However, whether that was his worst prediction for the 2010s is a live debate, since Ballmer was also unduly underwhelmed by Google in 2008.

“I mean, come on. They have one product. It’s been the same for five years — and they have Gmail now, but they have one product that makes all their money, and it hasn’t changed in five years,” Ballmer told the Financial Times.

Today, the Google ecosystem includes YouTube, Gmail, Drive, the Android ecosystem, Google Play Store, Google Assistant and Google devices like its smart speaker, home and Pixel products. So yes, more than one product these days — might have been a bit premature to call them a one-trick pony.

If being under-excited was Ballmer’s predictive sin, it seems at least fair to note that it’s easy to go too far in the other direction, too. In 2014, entrepreneur and bitcoin enthusiast Tim Draper predicted that the price of bitcoin would go over $10,000 in 2017, enter the $200,000 range in 2022 and, at some point, begin to replace fiat currency as it gained greater transaction acceptance. The price of bitcoin did get over $10,00 in 2017, but its recent price bottom out indicated that the $200,000 mark is going to be a long climb.

So far, fiat currency is holding on just fine.

While it is easy to tease overly enthused bitcoin fans, it’s worth noting that in the more staid, mainstream world of mobile payment predictions, it’s not unheard of to get a bit over-enthusiastic. In 2010, reports kicked off the first of what would be seven years in a row of predicting that the “year of mobile payments” was finally upon us — and that consumers would soon be abandoning their cards for their phones.

In 2014, Bloomberg reported that Apple was the force that would finally be the thing that kicked mobile payments into gear in the U.S. and around the world.

“The mobile wallet in 2014 is a lot like the MP3 player in early 2001, just before the launch of the iPod, or the smartphones available in 2006 ahead of the first iPhone. The tools now exist for fully functional mobile wallets, just not in a way that has won over the shopping masses. At least not yet. Apple enters the fledgling mobile payments market with high expectations, and there are reasons to think the time is right for a breakthrough,” the report said.

Of course, from 2018, we know how that story turned out. According to the PYMNTS/InfoScout Apple Pay usage figures, only about 10 percent of eligible customers have Apple Pay set up on their phones, and only about 3 percent use it on any given transaction.

Mobile payments have exploded in a variety of forms since the launch of Apple Pay (to mobile order-ahead food, shop online or to order online and arrange in-store pickup), but purely as an in-store point-of-sale (POS) payment form factor? As it turns out, people are pretty predictable creatures of habit, and their habits are swiping or dipping cards at the POS.

As we noted, predicting the future is hard work. It’s easy to confuse what we want to happen (or don’t want to happen) with what will happen — and no one knows what they don’t know, meaning it is easy to leave key data out of a prediction.

Of course, consumers are predictable in being unpredictable. So, instead of trying to predict the future for the rest of the year, we’ll just make sure to inform about the present as it happens, with a heavy dose of frameworks within which to evaluate that news. The readers can take it from there.