Bill Gates: More Profit Than Prophet

>It's been 15 years since Bill Gates published The Road Ahead, a book packed with the Microsoft founder's predictions about the future. How do Gates's prophecies hold up now that the road ahead has arrived? Let's take a look at Bill's hits and misses:

E-Mail

Prediction: Gates wrote, "Electronic mail and shared screens will eliminate the need for many meetings. ... when face-to-face meetings do take place, they will be more efficient because participants will have already exchanged background information by e-mail. ... information overload is not unique to the (information) highway, and it needn't be a problem."

Verdict: Miss. Gates's view of e-mail now seems naively Utopian, failing to account for unintended consequences. If anything, e-mail has made workplace meetings more frequent and less efficient. "Didn't you get that e-mail?" is probably the single most common question posed at meetings, a query that often leads to ... another meeting. By some estimates, nearly 40 percent of workers spend at least two hours of the work day sifting through e-mail, leading some companies to adopt policies aimed at reducing e-mail glut. One frequent solution: more face-to-face meetings.

The Wallet PC

Prediction: "You'll be able to carry the wallet PC in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and also let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, play both simple and sophisticated games, browse information if you're bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call up photos of your kids."

Verdict: Hit. Gates's wallet PC is more or less today's mobile smartphone with voice capability added.

Wireless Networks

Prediction: "The wireless networks of the future will be faster, but unless there is a major breakthrough, wired networks will have a far greater bandwidth. Mobile devices will be able to send and receive messages, but it will be expensive and unusual to use them to receive an individual video stream."

Verdict: Miss. Today, receiving a wireless video stream is neither expensive nor unusual; in fact, it's so commonplace that most people don't give it a second thought. Gates failed to anticipate that wireless would become cheaper and faster, but his chief mistake was a common but flawed assumption among techno-futurists: that new technology is adopted chiefly on the basis of technological superiority rather than social factors. Even though most wired networks still have greater bandwidth than wireless nets, that's trumped by the tremendous social utility of wireless, allowing information to be accessed anytime, anyplace.

Social Networking

Prediction: "The (information) highway will not only make it easier to keep up with distant friends, it will also enable us to find new companions. Friendships formed across the network will lead naturally to getting together in person."

Verdict: Hit and Miss. One of the killer apps of the information highway has turned out to be social networking. Facebook has more than 400 million registered users worldwide and countless other social networks are creating new connections among people. But friendships formed online don't regularly lead to face-to-face meetings. Far more common is the user with 250 Facebook friends, most of whom he rarely, if ever, sees in person.

Online Shopping

Prediction: "Because the information highway will carry video, you'll often be able to see exactly what you've ordered. ... you won't have to wonder whether the flowers you ordered for your mother by telephone were really as stunning as you'd hoped. You'll be able to watch the florist arrange the bouquet, change your mind if you want, and replace wilting roses with fresh anemones."

Verdict: Miss. Gates was right that the information highway would carry video, but he completely misread the social and economic factors that would shape its use in online commerce. How on earth would a harried florist find the time to hold a videoconference with every customer who orders flowers for Mother's Day? What company would absorb the colossal expense of having orders changed at the last second according to customers' shifting whims? Gates's vision of online shopping has turned out to be a lot like past predictions about personal jet packs and moving sidewalks: a future that's technologically possible but socially and economically impractical.

Presented by

Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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