1981 computer magazine cover illustrates why we’re usually so bad at tech predictions

“Thirty-three years later, artist Robert Tinney’s concept smartwatch is worth at least a thousand words,” Harry McCracken writes for TIME Magazine.

“If you were passionate about personal computers between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the odds were high that you were a reader of Byte magazine,” McCracken writes. “And if you read Byte, you were surely a fan of Robert Tinney, the artist whose cover paintings were one of the magazine’s signature features for years.”

Robert Tinney's cover for the April 1981 issue of Byte magazine (source: internet Archive)
Robert Tinney’s cover for the April 1981 issue of Byte magazine (source: internet Archive)
“While rummaging around the web last week looking for something else, I came across his cover for Byte‘s April 1981 issue at the Internet Archive,” McCracken writes. “Most of all, the Tinney watch is a wonderful visual explanation of why human beings–most of us, anyhow–aren’t very good at predicting the future of technology.”

“We tend to think that new products will be a lot like the ones we know. We shoehorn existing concepts where they don’t belong. Oftentimes, we don’t dream big enough,” McCracken writes. “(One classic example: When it became clear that Apple was working on an ‘iPhone,’ almost all the speculation involved something that was either a lot like an iPod, or a lot like other phones of the time. As far as I know, nobody expected anything remotely like the epoch-shifting device Apple released.)”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Oh, Harry, somebody expected the iPhone, over 4 years before Steve Jobs unveiled it:

This device, able to be made today with current technology, would easily be “The Device.” Running Mac OS X or a mobile variant, it would allow the user to communicate via text, audio, and video. It would snap digital photos and organize them, do email, and browse the web. It would sync automatically with your desktop or portable Mac…. It would absorb the iPod by playing AAC / MP3 audio and interface with iTunes, but it would also play feature-length MPEG-4 movies, too, in full color… It would have built-in Bluetooth, which would allow for, among other things, short-range personal broadcasts; your own radio/TV station and any number of websites in your pocket. McDonald’s Drive Thru’s would accept payments via Bluetooth from “The Device.” And, of course, it would have the basics like any PDA; your date book, to do list, calculator, etc. I figure a form factor about the size or a Newton or a bit smaller would do the trick.

This would be “The Device.” iDevice?? And only Apple, in concert with a partner like Verizon, Cingular, or Sprint, has everything in place to make “The Device” a reality today. I wonder if they are close, yet, or still far away from fruition? I really hope they are building it. Everything seems to point to it or am I just wishing too hard? I’ll tell you one thing, if Apple can produce it, they’ll really change everything this time, and they’ll never be able to make enough. Nearly everyone would have an Apple device in their pocket…SteveJack, MacDailyNews, December 10, 2002

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “The Other Steve” for the heads up.]

Related articles:
Is Apple building ‘The Device?’ [revisited] – January 9, 2007
Is Apple building ‘The Device?’ – December 10, 2002


        1. Hey people are predicting we will be driving around in driverless card within 5 years, no doubt in silver units. Even seen renderings of cars with seats facing each other now that we won’t need to look forward through the windscreen. Logical if the car is stationary but does anyone think that people would be comfortable facing backwards at speed relying only on the competence of the car to prevent an imminent accident. A psychological no no for 95% of us.

    1. Unless you are Samsung or Google. Then you copy it and stall the court system for as long as you can. By the time the trial comes up, people have been using it for so long that they think Apple’s ideas are obviously natural and should not be patentable.

    2. Nah, they’re easy. Here ya go:

      I predict that for centuries to come, years will pass. Change will happen. Bad thing will occur, good things too. Analysts will keep getting it wrong.

      There, done.

  1. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”!

    Yes, after the iPod took off, many were expecting Apple to do a phone. What no-one expected (least of all Google) was the Multi-Touch interface).

  2. Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game. But increasingly it’s a game we all have to play because the world is changing so fast and we need to have some sort of idea of what the future’s actually going to be like because we are going to have to live there, probably next week.

  3. “As far as I know, nobody expected anything remotely like the epoch-shifting device Apple released.” Sorry, but if you listen to the people from Samdung, they invented all the neat stuff that was introduced on the iPhone.

  4. Nice try, MDN. You may have gotten some of the features right, but I think he was referring to how the device would actually work. Did you predict a monolithic device with nothing but a screen and one button?

    I think the closest anyone came to predicting the iPhone were the rumors of a “touch-screen iPod” that drifted around in 2006. Even then, the assumption was that the iPod’s iconic scroll-wheel would somehow be implemented on the screen.


    1. Idiocy. What SteveJack wrote IN 2002(!) NO LESS, is eerily prescient. Read the whole article and try to imagine that when it was written, the iPod was just over a year old. I’ve never seen a tech prediction better than SteveJack describing what would become the iPhone over four years before it was unveiled. Give credit where credit is due.

      1. “Eerily precient” my ass. He listed features he’d like to see. He did not describe HOW the device would work (touchscreen) or how it appeared. For f***’s sake, he didn’t even predict it would be A PHONE!

        “The Device”? Could you get more vague? Yeah, my horoscope seems to predict my future pretty well too, when I do all the work by filling in all the vague handwaving bullish*t with what actually happened.

        I did read the article, when it came out. I’ve been reading this site a LONG time. I’m just not as big a fan of its opinion-writing as you seem to be.


  5. Oftentimes, we don’t dream big enough,” McCracken writes.

    …Well, not exactly. We also dream ‘far out’ and ‘freaky’. Sci fi is full of crystal memory chips read by lasers. Where are they? Or Jetson’s cars. No sign of them. AI. Literally no sign of that happening, despite the hype.

    It’s tough to predict the behavior of a system if you don’t have knowledge of all its components at hand. Under or over-imagining rarely helps.

  6. I clearly remember before the iPhone was released, almost every artist rendering resembled and Apple branded flip phone. Some were incredible looking, but I don’t recall anyone coming up with a design anything near the finnisherd product. Even those in the industry thought it was a fake and even impossible for many years to come. MDN predicted it four years earlier? I think not.

    1. I seem to remember Leo Laporte saying that, for example, the pins dropping down in the map search demo could not possibly happen that fast and that that part of the demo must have been fabricated. I don’t recall him recanting that statement when the iPhone finally did come out.

      I also recall that he and his crew said something similar about the battery life of the original iPad.

  7. It’s easy to predict Microsoft’s future: Doom

    And the entire ecosystem is also doomed. No more antivirus, crap cleaners, browser toolbars, anti-spyware, start button enhancers, anti-malware, registry cleaners and disk defraggers. All toast by 2020.

  8. The first thing I thought about that silly watch depicted on the magazine cover is that even today some Android-ish, Windows-using dude out there would look at it and say, “It’s got an SD card! Swappable battery and I’m sold!”

  9. Actually, I believe the watch depicted on the cover of 1981 byte magazine was a tongue-in-cheek rendition of what the future would look like. I mean, obviously no one could handle floppy disks that small, or use a keyboard of that size.

      1. spouting facts and logic makes android fans really uncomfortable and dizzy because it doesn’t tie up with what the read on Gizmodo/BGR. It’s a bit cruel if you ask me.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.