Few seemed to know what was coming 20 years ago--even the biggest names in tech.

Staff Writer

Looking at past predictions is a good reminder that something that seems crazy now may well be all the rage in as few as five or 10 years. Similarly, what seems cutting edge may end up on the cutting-room floor. No one knows this better than Bill Gates.

It’s 1997, the year the millionth dot com name is registered, and some influential members of the tech industry are slow to realize that the World Wide Web might be a Pretty Big Deal.

Skeptics Cite Overload Of Useless Information: Internet Arrives At a Crossroads,” reads the title of a New York Times article published in March of that year. Gates is one of those skeptics.

“Even Bill Gates, the founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp. and widely regarded as the crown prince of the World Wide Web, was taken unawares by the Internet’s grassroots acceptance,” writes Sharon Reier, identified by the Times as a freelance journalist based in Paris.

In his book, The Road Ahead, she adds “Mr. Gates admitted that he believed the technology for ‘killer applications’ was inadequate to lure consumers to the Internet.”

At the time, Gates’ company was devoted mainly to its Microsoft Office software suite. Though, as Microsoft’s 1997 acquisition of WebTV Networks indicates, Gates was certainly coming around to the internet.

He later revised his book, which focused on the impact personal computing would have on the world, to include a chapter on the internet, added Reier. (Apparently, he wasn’t sold on the idea that the internet would be a big deal at the time the book was initially published in 1995.)

Two years after the story published, Gates would write another book that proved uncannily prophetic. 1999’s Business @ the Speed of Thought predicted automated price comparison services (think Kayak), social media, and more.

Still, Gates had plenty of company. Other technology forebears made similarly shortsighted predictions, as the Times story shows. Computer Associates founder and then CEO, Charles Wang, had a particularly hard time reading his tea leaves, for instance. “There were only a few hundred million dollars done in transactions in the Internet last year. If it is taking over, that is a pretty small number,” he told the Times. “Put newspapers and magazines out of business? It will never happen,” he says, adding: “People say the Internet will replace stores. It will never happen.”

His one nugget of wisdom: The internet wasn’t useful unless you knew exactly what you wanted from it. When you consider how much less searchable the internet was 20 years ago, that’s a fair assertion. The story was published months before Google even registeredthe domain name Google.com.

What’s more, analysts at Forrester Research, who were quoted in the story, echoed Wang’s sentiments. The internet, as they saw it, was simply overloaded with information. (Not that anyone would disagree with that statement today.)

Taking a scan of today’s predictions of what will fail or succeed, this past forecast should give you pause. CB Insights, last month, noted some more recent examples of business leaders dismissing new products, services and technologies that have since been deemed disruptive. Among others, there’s the Apple Watch, Bitcoin, mobile gaming, connected cars, and Airbnb.

The story isn’t over for a lot of these disruptors–especially Airbnb. Whether today’s forecasters wind up with pie on their face is hardly known. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind the next time you pan the next big thing. And who knows, maybe we’ll all look back and think, man, Google Glass was brilliant.

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