• United States
Senior Correspondent

COMDEX : Keynote crystal-ball gazing often dim

Nov 12, 20025 mins

When Bill Gates takes to the MGM Grand stage in Las Vegas on Sunday night to kick off this year’s Comdex Fall trade show, thousands of attendees are expected to listen to his take on the current state of the computer industry, hear about Microsoft’s latest technology and possibly learn his predictions for the future.

The vision of Gates, who is Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect, and that of other top executives who will deliver Comdex keynote talks, has become a standard part of such speeches and is awaited each year. While attendees will soon form their own opinions on whether the executives are delivering an insightful view of the future or are simply full of hot air, the passage of time reveals how forward looking they really are – or are not.

Looking back at Comdex Fall keynotes past, speakers can see that making predictions can be a dangerous thing and perhaps no one knows this better than Gates, who has delivered more keynote speeches at more Comdex Fall shows than anyone else.

Back in 1994, Gates stood in front of about 7,000 people and looked 10 years into the future to life in 2004. The home of the future, he predicted, would have a single flat panel display from which the security and environmental controls could be accessed. Mom would wear a business jacket and sweat pants, because her video conferencing colleagues would only see her from the waist up, and son would do his homework by accessing museums over the Internet.

So far, pretty good. It’s not quite what life is like today – just over a year away from 2004 – but the technology is all on the market. Unfortunately, Gates’ vision stumbled with the art gallery, where he envisioned works shown on high-definition flat panel displays and coffee paid for with wallet PCs, that replaced cash, credit cards and checkbooks sometime before 2004.

Five years later Scott McNealy, chairman and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Inc., played the visionary. He laid out a future where applications would be delivered over the network and paid for like water and other utilities. “The new model here says there is no operating system industry and there is no application industry – it’s all going to be free,” he said. “You all got a free copy of StarOffice – who said there’s no free lunch?”

He went on to predict that the network-centric computing model would render personal computers obsolete. “Comdex should not exist,” he said. “I hope I’m not raining on the PC show here but this is how I see it; It’s inevitable.” Oops. Not only is Sun now asking US$76 for its once free StarOffice but McNealy will be back at the still-running Comdex Fall 2002 to deliver a keynote speech.

While their predictions may have been off the mark, few have seen their futures crash and burn in quite the same way as John Sidgmore who, as vice chairman and chief operating officer of WorldCom, took to the stage at Comdex Fall 1998 and predicted a bright future ahead for his company and the telecommunications industry.

“Everyone will have an average of five IP objects on their body by 2000,” he boldly proclaimed as the Internet bubble was still approaching its peak. “Industry explosions like this are extremely, exceedingly rare. I think 40, 50 years from today people will look back and say this was the golden age of communications.”

Looking back on such predictions, perhaps the best advice for speakers is to aim to impress their audience and then exceed their goals. That way, they’ll not only have the satisfaction of looking good at the time but their companies will look good in the future.

When Intel Chairman Andrew Grove, then-president and CEO, spoke in 1996, he predicted the company would be building processors with 1 billion transistors capable of speeds of 10 GHz by 2011. With Pentium Pro processors running at about 200 MHz at the time, the talk impressed show attendees, however Intel’s most recent target is a 15 GHz processor by 2010.

So, how did the class of 2001 do?

The later-than-anticipated arrival of Microsoft’s Tablet PC means that Gates’ prediction during his keynote – “Next year a lot of people in the audience will be taking notes with those Tablet PCs” – is likely to be off the mark. But the jury is still out on two other predictions he made: That Tablet PCs will become the most popular form of PC within five years and that, “In the decade ahead, I can predict we will provide over twice the productivity improvements that we did during the 90s.”

Jeff Hawkins, chairman and chief product officer at Handspring, is also waiting to see if one of his predictions comes true: “I’m the guy who invented graffiti, and I don’t think it’s going to be around for much longer.” The latest PDA market data suggests a second attempt at crystal ball gazing is likely to be wrong: “I don’t believe Pocket PC is a long-term player.”

EBay Inc. President and CEO Meg Whitman could hardly go wrong with her prediction that “In my view, the e-commerce revolution is just beginning.” Sony President and COO Kunitake Ando, while not making any predictions, did announce partnerships with AOL Time Warner and Nokia that have yet to bear any significant fruit.