Today in 1988, Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT Computer at Symphony Hall in San Francisco. A day or two later, I was among a standing-room only crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall admiring the all-black, beautifully-designed “workstation” with a brand-new optical drive (no hard disk drive in the computer of the future according to Jobs) that played a duet with a human violinist.
That night I sent a gushing memo to my colleagues at DEC, telling them that the future has arrived and that Jobs education-sector-first marketing strategy was brilliant. Indeed, CERN was one of the early adopters and Tim Berners-Lee developed the first WWW browser/editor on the NeXT workstation. But NeXT Computer, Inc. went on to sell only 50,000 beautifully-designed “cubes,” getting out of the hardware business altogether in 1993.
For many years, I have kept in my office the “Computing advances to the NeXT level” poster I got that night as a reminder that forecasting the next big (or small) thing in technology is tough, even impossible. And yet, many people believe that technology marches according to some “laws” or pre-defined trajectory and that all we have to do is decipher the “evolutionary” path technology (or the economy or society) is destined to follow.
Jobs went on to introduce the iPod and the iPad, industry-changing devices whose invention was made possible, among other things, by a tiny disk drive. The possibility of a significant boost to the simultaneous shrinking (of size) and enlarging (of capacity) of disk drives was known since the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect in the very same year the NeXT Computer was introduced, 1988. Still, no one predicted the iPod. Similarly, in 1990 no one predicted how the Web will change our lives or in 2000, how virtualization will change the lives of IT managers, although both technologies existed at the time.
To quote someone who had the opportunity to meet his future, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” We cannot predict our future. But, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can create it.