Commentary

Crystal Ball Breaking

So here we are again, at the beginning of a new year, a moment when predictions for 2014 – reach epidemic proportions. There's nothing easier or less demanding than prognosticating about what the next 12 months will bring.

And there’s nothing that means as little. That's because our short attention span and Internet memory cycles mean there's no accountability whatsoever for predictions that weren't close to coming true. We can't remember what we had for lunch yesterday, let alone what a tech blog said a few months ago.
But rather than hold ourselves out there for delayed humiliation, we thought we'd put the difficulties of crystal-ball reading in perspective by highlighting some of the most insanely wrong predictions from last year. So here goes: 

Flexible smartphones; hmm, seemed so right at the time

Mashable said we could expect flexible smartphones in 2013. Well, we tried to fold our iPhone 5 so it fits in our pocket, but all we got was a lot of broken glass mixed in with our Altoids. Nokia introduced the promise of this in 2008, and it still hasn't arrived. 

Buzzwords Will Disappear into the Sunset

Maybe insights into 2013 were running dry last year, because Shel Israel in Forbes simply told us that “buzzwords will die.” And he was specific – not just any words of buzz, but “mobile” and “cloud-based” and “social networks.” Though we might wish that his prediction was correct, it was hard to find a blog, article, or news story this year that didn’t feature one of these words. 

Wireless Charging – An Idea Whose Time Has Come (but only if you’re in the prediction business.)

Freeing ourselves from the slavery of the outlet is something that all of us who’ve cut conversations short at the dismal end of our power supply would delight in. 

Looking back at December 2012, we saw a slew of predictions promising the explosion of wireless charging. 

We’re confident that, one day, plugging in will be as obsolete as the sound of a modem, but we need to hold predictors accountable for their time frames. Isn’t that the entire point of a prediction? 

Mobile Payments Will “Whiff,” Said CNET

We think 2013 was a breakthrough year for mobile payments. When more than 10% of the transactions at Starbucks are made with a mobile phone – at a level of 4.5 million payments a week – that sounds like venti success to us. 

And over at Square, their transaction volume is growing exponentially, and is currently over $15 billion annually.

Given the substantial growth of mobile payments in 2013, you’d have to call CNET’s prediction a whiff. 

Paywalls Will Be as Hated as was the Berlin Wall

One of Millward Brown’s 2013 predictions argued that there will be an increase in the erection of paywalls – credit to them, they were right there. But their assertion that with “consumers now having to pay, you can expect audience sizes for premium content sites to fall as consumers look for alternative free content or go without,” has been somewhat off-target.

This claim seemed intuitive at the time but in reality consumers are accepting paywalls in surprising numbers. Nieman Lab notes that “paywalls are generating real money for American newspapers in 2013." And Business Week reports that the Financial Times’ digital business has a larger original footprint than its famously-hued hard copy version.

So there you have it – the walk of shame for predictions that made sense at the time. To be fair, we did cherry pick some obviously errant examples to make our case. But most predictions were either dead wrong, or restatements of undeniable trends. 

Are all predictions wrong? Generally, yes. There are dozens of hilarious examples of egregiously bad ones, including legendary former IBM president Thomas Watson’s, who proclaimed in 1943 that there is “a world market for only five computers.” (Although fans of “Back to the Future” will be delighted to know that Robert Zemeckis got a surprising amount right.)

Occasionally, someone hits the nail on the head, but the end-of-year prediction game is the apogee of inaccuracy. That’s because it exists for a flawed reason, as a mutually beneficial ecosystem for the predictor and the media. And, because the instinct to find out “what’s next” is hard wired into all of us.

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