August 09, 2018

The Cassandras of computers (1/7)

Cassandra was cursed by the Greek god Apollo with the power to make true prophesies that nobody believed. A quarter century ago, the Cassandras of the computer world had an additional problem: they didn't always believe the future they were forecasting either.

Columnist John Dvorak was a curmudgeonly contrarian back when he started writing for PC Magazine in the 1980s. During his first decade, he made several notable predictions, reported a story that foreshadowed a tidal wave of technological change, and then missed the very confirmation of what he was writing about.

After a hands-on demo of the Canon RC-701, the first commercially-available camera to use a CCD instead of film, Dvorak stated in the 26 January 1988 issue,

It's the future. Not only will we one day take photos on floppies or plug-in RAM (or both), but we will manipulate them on our machines at home. Finally, a use for the home computer: a device to edit snapshots. And note: because the photo is on a cheap disk, there will be no reluctance to take tons of pictures because we'll know we can erase and reuse the disk—something we'll never actually do.

After first musing that it was time to sell Kodak stock, he reconsidered and thought that maybe Kodak had a future selling printers and paper. His initial reaction was the correct one.

At the time, it was also a warning nobody wanted to hear (including Kodak). After he again broached the subject two years later in his 25 December 1990 column, a reader wrote in to scoff, "What a laugh. John Dvorak says that photography as we know is dead." But this time Dvorak had seen the future with 20/20 foresight.

He hit the nail on the head a few other times too, pointing to the rise of Unicode and predicting that LCD screens were "the wave of the future." In his 26 January 1993 column, he railed against pagers and portable phones, saying they reminded him of the Borg from Star Trek. "The desire for instant communication reflects our own insecurities. Dump them."

Dvorak recently revisited the latter subject in a 6 June 2018 column, in which he termed the malady "FOMO," or "the fear of missing out." (Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier recently devoted an entire monograph to the subject.)

Also in 1993, John Dvorak foresaw the importance of Texas Instrument's brand-new DLP projection system and correctly predicted that giant magnetoresistance technology would make 250 GB hard drives "commonplace" a decade hence. Wading into the field of business anthropology, after a junket to Japan in 1990, he observed,

The Japanese are incredible time wasters. While the Japanese may make an efficient assembly line, the Japanese style of doing business is the opposite. It's a miracle anything gets done. Companies compete fiercely with each other. "Japan Inc." is a cooperation between government and business that is the opposite of what we experience in America. In Japan, government helps business succeed because the government knows that business success means wealth and jobs for everyone.

Dvorak naturally caught a lot of politically correct flack for those comments, but I don't see anything there to disagree with. In fact, in one short paragraph, he neatly summed up The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel van Wolferen.

But back to the subject at hand. In the last issue of 1989, John Dvorak reported in his "Inside Track" column that

According to Silicon Valley rumor mongers, Bill Gates has hired operating system guru and program designer David Cutler to develop what everyone is calling portable OS/2. This will be generic OS/2, but completely written in C. The idea is that once OS/2 becomes a viable and popular operating system, it will still be confronted by the portability issue. Portable OS/2 could be quickly ported to a RISC machine. This may be the secret project that finally makes Microsoft the biggest software company in the world.

He got it two-thirds right. Thanks in large part to David Cutler's work, Microsoft quickly became the biggest software company in the world. In its 2017 ranking of "Software & Programming" companies (pure play or nearly pure play), Forbes still put Microsoft right at the top. 

And Windows NT was initially developed on the MIPS R3000 and was later ported Digital Equipment's 64-bit Alpha, another of the many attempts to run Windows on non-x86 platforms, most recently Windows RT (nope) and the Qualcomm Snapdragon using software emulation (maybe).

But Bill Gates had actually hired David Cutler (along with most of Cutler's DEC Prism team) in 1988 to write Windows NT. Since this yet-undisclosed operating system would compete directly with OS/2 and thus IBM (the irascible Cutler loathed both OS/2 and Unix), the information had been leaked using language that didn't alarm the wrong people.

After all, IBM and Microsoft were still best buds. They invented the PC hand-in-hand. OS/2 belonged to both of them, even more so than DOS. That's what everybody believed, and they believed it so completely that early news of the breakup was taken with a grain of salt.

When the Wall Street Journal reported in its 28 January 1991 edition that Microsoft was planning to "scrap OS/2 and refine Windows," John Dvorak and the rest of the computer press labeled this spot-on revelation "dubious" and dismissed the "premature obituary for OS/2" as a "fiasco."

After previously doubting that "IBM's OS/2 would be able to knock Windows and DOS from the top of the hill," in his August 1992 column Dvorak hopped off the fence and wrote that PC users with the necessary hardware would be "nuts not to try OS/2." A year later, with the release of OS/2 2.1, he predicted that

the popularity of OS/2 will increase dramatically when people finally start to grasp the power of true multitasking.

Well, that stood to reason, did it not? If OS/2 wasn't the future of the personal computer, then what was?

Oddly enough, John Dvorak made perhaps his most prescient statement about OS/2 at a time when nobody outside Microsoft and IBM had seen it. The July 1987 issue of PC Magazine introducing the IBM's PS/2 line of personal computers also announced the upcoming OS/2 operating system.

The official release was still half a year away. So the cynical Dvorak trusted his gut and opined that "OS/2 might easily become the Lisa of software." Continuing with the analogy, he added, "It remains to be seen whether or not Microsoft has a Macintosh of software waiting in the wings."

Well, Microsoft did. And it wasn't waiting in the wings. Windows 1.0 had debuted in late 1985 and impressed those users with the hardware powerful enough to make the most of what was, at the time, cutting-edge technology. But the Cassandras of computers couldn't believe their own lying eyes.

Related posts

The future that wasn't (introduction)
The future that wasn't (2/7)
The future that wasn't (3/7)
The future that wasn't (4/7)
The future that wasn't (5/7)
The future that wasn't (6/7)
The future that wasn't (7/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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# posted by Blogger Dan
8/11/2018 2:51 PM   
The 1990s was an interesting decade for technology. The biggest stories were Microsoft winning the PC war and the consumerization of the Internet. But the last 20 years show the technologies of the 1990s to be as obsolete as any 20 year old technology. Microsoft continues to print money selling the Windows OS but its biggest revenue comes from Office and Azure which mainly reflect corporate, government and institutions accounts. And the Internet technologies of the 1990s have long been superseded. In terms of pure dotcoms Amazon became a juggernaut and the online brokers have survived and Priceline / Booking reinvented itself, but so many others are distant memories.

As for mobile technology that too was reinvented in the subsequent decades. Blackberry became a thing at the end of the 1990s but it was obliterated by Apple and then Android when the smart phone era was launched.

My takeaway is it is hard to predict the future because so often the future involves entities that don't yet exist! So in 1996 once could predict there would be a Google dominant internet company but it would be very hard to predict that it would be a new, not yet created company.
# posted by Blogger Joe
8/12/2018 10:07 AM   
Yes, Dvorak made some valid predictions, but he made even more blunders (besides the OS/2 silliness which were wrong when he made them--some of us had actually used OS/2.) That aside, an interesting aspect of reading old "successful" predictions is that while the gist is right, the specifics are often thunderously wrong, often for the reasons Dan outlines.

Another problem is essentially a linguistic one; if you go back to the language of the time a prediction was made, what seems like a hit is often really a miss. AI is the most glaring example. AI proponents have been very successful at redefining the term, thus it sounds like they've generally succeeded, yet based on their original definitions, AI has been a complete failure.

Finally, one of the things that cracks me up about the current alarm from gurus about how Facebook/Amazon/Google scrape our personal information is that the pundits of yesteryear thought this was a splendid idea. Alas, this wasn't the first time the pundits denounced their own futurism and won't be the last.