The Foggy Crystal Ball

Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a series of predictions made back in 1989 as well as a whole set of new forecasts. While pundits correctly foresaw  a product like Google Glass as well as the popularity of cell phones, they missed badly for the most part. In particular, the poor folks given the responsibility for predicting which companies would be successful in the future had the worst track record.

Companies are organic, living things even if they are not people as Mitt insisted. Because they are organic, they are subject to rapid change. Company cultures change or the companies die. Take Microsoft, for example. From what I understand, very few of the nation’s top college graduates are really looking at Microsoft as their first choice. Maybe they did so back in the 1990s, but the company is just not cool anymore. I’m sure Apple, Google, and a huge group of startups are on that most wanted list.

Of course even Apple is having trouble remaining cool. College and high school aged students are smitten by phones like the Samsung Galaxy and look at the iPhone as a phone for their parents. Similarly, remember when Intel was so hot? You just don’t hear that kind of enthusiasm anymore for computer chip companies, even those trying to move into other product areas.

Right now Google strikes me as a very wealthy amateur farmer who has bought hundreds of different varieties of seeds. He throws them in the ground and hopes that something edible will grow. Driverless cars? Sure, throw down some money. Google Glass? Sure. Broadband for entire cities? Why not? Yahoo is fighting to be relevant while Facebook is desperately trying to show how cool it is even though parents are replacing their kids as members.

Facebook’s answer is buy anything their demographic thinks is cool. The problem is that then then must assimilate that company into their own corporate culture where engineers rule. If cultures and new employees don’t mesh, then Facebook fails to provide a solution that people buy.

My feeling is that the next big thing isn’t even on the horizon yet. It might be a breakthrough in fusion energy, a way of overcoming Moore’s law, or it could be one of the usual suspects the technologies that never quite move from the very promising category to the must have category. I’d place nanotechnology in that group with 3D printing hovering close to relevancy but still on the “promising ” side because of gaps in technology.

It’s even difficult to predict what kinds of literature people will be reading and enjoying. Take literature from the last two centuries; they had lots of telling instead of showing. Suddenly that’s a no-no. Authors have to show and let readers draw their own conclusions or their manuscripts never make it past the slush pile. Perhaps the next break-through in literature will be truly interactive books with multiple endings. Movies might let audiences press a button to determine whether a story ends happily or whether the cute guy doesn’t get the cute girl. If you happen to be at the movies the night when a divorce support group attends as a group, you’re liable to wind up watching a tragedy instead of a romantic comedy.

So, read the books you like and go see the movies you know you’ll enjoy now while you still have control over the endings.