Steve Ballmer Was Not the Tom Skilling of Tech Forecasting

iphoneI get a real kick out of this Youtube clip. At the beginning of the video from 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is asked what his first reaction was upon seeing Steve Jobs unveil the first iPhone. If you look up “wrong” or “foolish” or “middle-aged smug blowhard” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of Ballmer’s reaction at the 0:13 mark. It’s as humorous as Ballmer seems to have found the first coming of the iPhone.

“$500? … FULLY SUBSIDIZED? … With a plan? … And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard.”

What a dummy.

Sure, it’s easy for me to cast aspersions at Microsoft’s outgoing soothsaying-challenged creativity vampire. I was using a Blackberry in 2007 and wouldn’t dream of getting a phone without a keyboard. So, although it sounds so ridiculous now, like his predecessor Bill Gates’ claim that all anyone would ever need is 640 KB of memory, maybe Ballmer’s only offense is that he looks so smug and cocksure saying it. There probably were a lot of people who agreed with him.

That makes Steve Jobs, of whom I am most certainly no fan, even more amazing a visionary. He saw what other experts did not. Of course, it could be that he was just lucky, or that he and his marketing people were so skilled in crafting a mystique that younger people who didn’t care about keyboards and business email and hair loss simply couldn’t resist. It likely was a mix of both future-vision, serendipity, and salesmanship, coupled with a well-executed design that hit its identified target precisely.

Simply put, predicting technology’s future is as futile an exercise for just about all of us as predicting the weather. Weather forecasting is absurdly difficulty because there are so many variables that influence so many other variables in only partially understood ways. Is predicting the future of technology any different? Sheer envelope-pushing isn’t the key; many ideas and companies have been cut and killed on the bleeding edge. Marketing alone won’t stamp your ticket to the high-tech hall of fame; the public may be gullible, but it is also fickle. A charismatic leader, a well-executed design, an unrivaled feature set, bold risk-taking: all of these are ingredients, but not guarantors, of transformational impact. I can’t remember when Microsoft had any of these things going for it. Apple, as much as I like to dislike it, has at least had the first two ingredients for most of the past ten years.

Today’s Computer Science students will have lots of opportunities to craft the next big thing, and even more opportunities to create the also-rans. The line between the game-changers and laudable efforts is slim and impossible to predict. Just follow this advice: never let them see you sweat, and never, ever, ever look as foolish as Steve “Don’t Call Me Jobs” Ballmer.

And don’t use a phone with a keyboard, either. It makes you look old.


About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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