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This 1981 BYTE Magazine Cover Explains Why We're So Bad At Tech Predictions 276

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the futuristic-but-not-too-futuristic dept.
harrymcc (1641347) writes "If you remember the golden age of BYTE magazine, you remember Robert Tinney's wonderful cover paintings. BYTE's April 1981 cover featured an amazing Tinney image of a smartwatch with a tiny text-oriented interface, QWERTY keyboard, and floppy drive. It's hilarious — but 33 years later, it's also a smart visual explanation of why the future of technology so often bears so little resemblance to anyone's predictions. I wrote about this over at TIME.com. 'Back then, a pundit who started talking about gigabytes of storage or high-resolution color screens or instant access to computers around the world or built-in cameras and music players would have been accused of indulging in science fiction.'"
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This 1981 BYTE Magazine Cover Explains Why We're So Bad At Tech Predictions

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  • That micro-floppy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @05:16AM (#46754699)

    ...isn't too far removed from a micro-SD card.

  • Surely ironic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Trapezium Artist (919330) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @05:25AM (#46754729)

    C'mon, it's entirely obvious that that "PC on a watch" painting is a rather clever piece of irony or even satire, not a meaningful prediction of an actual future piece of technology.

    That doesn't mean I disagree with the point of the discussion, namely that we're not that great at predicting the directions of future tech, but using this magazine cover as a direct illustration of that is, IMHO, rather disingenuous.

  • by Arduenn (2908841) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @05:30AM (#46754745)

    FTFA:

    "it's also a smart visual explanation of why the future of technology so often bears so little resemblance to anyone's predictions"

    No, it's not an explanation at all. It was intended as a metaphor for miniaturization of electronics. Noone in their right mind would take a full QWERTY keyboard with keys the size of pin heads literally.

  • Sci-Fi? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @06:32AM (#46754953)

    I find this statement very ironic:
    "I wrote about this over at TIME.com. 'Back then, a pundit who started talking about gigabytes of storage or high-resolution color screens or instant access to computers around the world or built-in cameras and music players would have been accused of indulging in science fiction.'"

    Especially when you consider, science has a hard time predicting future trends and technologies, yet Science Fiction seems to have been fairly accurate in predicting, if not outright influencing, future technological trends.
    For example: the waterbed, the waldo (as in glove, not Where's Waldo), cell phones, data pads (also called tablets). Even Kubrik's protrayal of space flight was more accurate than any other sci-fi of it's age, and certainly more realistic than what little was being released by the professional scientists.

    If you want to see what is going to be trending in ten or twenty years, check out today's science fiction.

  • by carlhaagen (1021273) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @06:36AM (#46754977)
    The cover art was delivering the message of the "wrist-worn/hand-held computer". It was neither joke nor prediction; it was symbolism.
  • by Jahta (1141213) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @07:01AM (#46755081)

    If you Google "Byte magazine covers", you'll see that the covers often took a certain amount of artistic license. They were designed to be eye-catching on news-stands. But the content was always very good. I'm sure I'm not the only one who was sorry to see it go.

  • by plover (150551) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @07:34AM (#46755243) Homepage Journal

    I think he drawing showed a miniaturized typical computer of the era primarily because the artist wanted it to be recognizable as a computer on the wearer's wrist. A drawing of a Pebble would have shown a smooth featureless slab; it would also have been hard to represent an RF data connection replacing physical data transfers, even if such things had been envisioned 33 years ago. (Although not impossible: Dick Tracy comics showed lightning bolts coming from the "2-way wrist radio" back in the 1950s.)

  • by Dogtanian (588974) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @07:39AM (#46755263) Homepage

    If you Google "Byte magazine covers", you'll see that the covers often took a certain amount of artistic license.

    I'm not even sure that one needs to excuse it as "artistic license".

    To me- and I suspect almost anyone at the time- that looks as if it were quite clearly intended as a non-literal but eye-catching metaphor for "one day we will have wrist watches as powerful as today's personal computers".

    I honestly don't think for a second they were suggesting that such a machine would *actually* resemble a ludicrously miniaturised PC...

    (Skims the actual article)

    Okay, so even the article itself understands that the original image was tongue-in-cheek; something the summary doesn't make so clear. And I do understand the point it's trying to make about predictions of the future looking like the present with high-tech bells on. But at the same time it slightly weakens the point being made, as there are probably many seriously-intended examples of "future tech" that are almost as silly!

  • by gsslay (807818) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @08:00AM (#46755369)

    The cover image is obviously not supposed to be an attempt at predicting what a real working computer on your wrist would look like. If it had attempted this, most readers at a glance would probably not recognise what it was suppose to be.

    So the artist simply took a recognisable object (early 80s computer) and shrunk it onto a wrist. Job done, eye catching cover that the reader can immediately understand.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @08:22AM (#46755479)
    Forget the tech - that's the least important part. The function is exactly the same: removable storage. So in that respect it works just fine.

    You also have to remember that the cover (and all articles about "the future") are written for a contemporary audience. Therefore all the stuff mentioned or described has to be acceptable to those people. If the artist had just drawn a small plastic chip, it would have been meaningless. A floppy disc, although nobody who could ever claim to be a Byte reader would consider it viable, signposts the idea of miniature storage.

    In that respect it was prescient.

  • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @08:46AM (#46755595)

    I like the elevator analogy. The fact is that even when prognostications get something right--they inevitably get the context, implications, and effects all wrong. That's because they get one invention or innovation right, but every invention and innovation has to be understood in the context of the million other inventions, innovations, and social changes that surround it.

    So one person guesses in the mid-19th century that we will have horseless carriages in the future--but also thinks they'll run on steam engines and cause great depletion of our wood and coal supplies. Another person forsees the internal combustion engine, but thinks its only practical use will be in industry. Another person forsees high-grade steel, but thinks it will be used just for girders. Another person forsees an interstate highway system, but thinks it will be used for giant horse-drawn land trains. No one person truly predicts the automobile and its actual effects and implications. No one person puts it all together.

    That's why all these reports that come out predicting the future (beyond the obvious) always crack me up. Such arrogance. About the only prediction guaranteed to be accurate is that the future will be far different than any of us can possibly imagine.

  • by bickerdyke (670000) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @08:47AM (#46755605)

    I also laughed when Asimov described spaceship controls as so complex, that only a robot with a positronic brain could handle them. Yep. a "computer" using levers and pulleys to steer a starship. :-)

  • Re:Surely ironic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @08:50AM (#46755621) Journal
    No single feature on the iPhone was a game changer, it was a combination of many incremental improvements. For example, the use of a capacitive touch screen that could be operated with a finger, and the UI to match. Back then pretty much all smart phones had to be operated with a stylus or at best a sharp finger nail. A small improvement, but huge in terms of usability, especially for short tasks.

    There were already many smart phones around at the time, but if you saw someone dicking around on one for a few minutes at the bus stop, chances are it was an iPhone. Apple's small improvements added up to a lot of usability.
  • Re:Surely ironic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Tuesday April 15, 2014 @10:27AM (#46756359)

    It's just complete nonsense, anyone working with smartphones at the time was completely unfazed by the iPhone

    Oh really?

    Chris DeSalvo right after the iPhone unveiling:

    As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought ‘We’re going to have to start over.’

    What we had suddenly looked just so . . . nineties,” DeSalvo said. “It’s just one of those things that are obvious when you see it.

    Andy Rubin after the iPhone unveiling:

    "Holy crap," he said to one of his colleagues in the car. “I guess we’re not going to ship that phone."

    Yeah, they were totally unfazed. Oh wait...

    http://theatlantic.com/technol... [theatlantic.com]

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