Ahead of the Curve

I came across this article the other day. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future from the past.¬†The Executive Computer; ‘Mother of All Markets’ or a ‘Pipe Dream Driven by Greed’?

It was written a shade over 25 years ago, and begins:

Sometime around the middle of this decade no one is sure exactly when — executives on the go will begin carrying pocket-sized digital communicating devices. And although nobody is exactly sure what features these personal information gizmos will have, what they will cost, what they will look like or what they will be called, hundreds of computer industry officials and investors at the Mobile ’92 conference here last week agreed that the devices could become the foundation of the next great fortunes to be made in the personal computer business.

The business uses the participants describe – using your phone to order pizza, to “wirelessly fax”, to “plug in the latest disk-based novel” and so on are so adorably quaint.

But what I find fascinating about this article is the gulf between opinions. I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) story about Thomas Watson, the president of IBM who said in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”. Look at the comment by¬†Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel Corporation. He says the idea of a wireless personal communicator in every pocket is “a pipe dream driven by greed.”

It certainly contrasts with John Sculley, then CEO of Apple – a company who at the time was routinely described as “beleaguered”. He said these personal communicators could be “the mother of all markets.”

Now Sculley’s tenure at Apple was nothing if not controversial. He was, after all, the man who sacked Steve Jobs from the company he’d founded. And the company survived – just! – some pretty difficult times in the early 90s.

Today of course, the iPhone is ten years old, and along the way has completely revolutionised the smartphone market. Blackberry and Windows Mobile are nothing more than memories of another time, skid marks on the technological highway. (Remember the boss of Blackberry saying “these PC guys are not going to just walk in here and figure this out”? Good times.) Apple has grown to become the most successful company on the planet. So from the perspective of 2017, Sculley’s words are extraordinarily prophetic.

Peter Lewis’ article is a crazy echo from the past. Do go read it.

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