A Year Is Not Enough for Tech Predictions

A long-term perspective is needed to gauge the accuracy of tech predictions.

Those who dare to make year-ahead predictions should remember Bill Gates accurate 1997 observation: "There is a tendency to overestimate how much technology will change in the next two years, and a similar tendency to underestimate how much things will change in the next 10 years."

Most predictions of whats ahead look wildly optimistic 12 months later—there are more forces opposing than promoting short-term change. Oddly enough, those same predictions often look timidly incremental a few years later. When things get jolted enough to move them at all, they may go in unexpected directions.

Examples of short-term inertia arise from a review of eWEEK Labs wish list for 2004, which appeared in 2003s end-of-year issue.

We werent delusional about our hopes. Our list was subtitled "Well, we can hope, cant we?" But its dismaying to see how short weve fallen, for example, of our No. 1 hope: platform neutrality as the default for content and application design. A year later, and a bunch of security alerts angrier, we still find an aging, almost defiantly insecure browser with a dominant share of the user base and continued loyalty from many rich-content developers.

At No. 2 on our 2004 wish list was "Real security awareness." It was time, we suggested, to think of good security as an affirmative business practice, not just a cost to be minimized. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act has given impetus to this idea, but IT builders are still walking around the elephantine Windows XP Service Pack 2, trying to decide if its legs are pillars of new strength for their infrastructure or if its tail is a rope that will hang them with application incompatibilities and attendant help desk workloads.

If anyone thought that SP2 reflected a new commitment to security as fundamental to softwares fitness for use, the year-end confirmation that Windows 2000 wont get its own version of the SP2 repair job should make the reality clear.

/zimages/5/28571.gifWhat does Jim Rapoza predict for 2005? Click here to read his column.

But if short-term change has been less than we hoped, longer-term changes have been greater than anyone would likely have predicted. For example, our 1997 year-end summary relegated chip maker Advanced Micro Devices to a role as the last source of low-price pressure on Intels mainstream x86 product line. Here we are at the end of 2004 with Intel very much following AMDs lead in the most interesting segment of the enterprise CPU market, the 64-bit extended x86.

In 1997, Intel was still two years away from coining the Itanium name for its drastic, disruptive departure from the x86 evolutionary path. In 2004, the Itanic quest no longer seems appealing, even to staunch Intel partners such as Hewlett-Packard, which this year dropped its Itanium-based workstations. Itanium has also lost the support of Microsoft, whose forthcoming cluster-computing version of Windows Server will run only on AMD64 (and Intels unimpressively imitative EM64T) processors. Few year-end lists would have dared to predict the demotion of "Intel Inside" to "Intel Irrelevant," but thats arguably where we are as 04 ends.

Dominant vendors, such as Microsoft and Intel, are the ones whose missteps matter to the greatest number of people, and so they bear the brunt of commentaries like this. The importance of these vendors, though, is itself a testament that theyve done much more right than wrong in the process of creating a commodity computing platform.

Even so, to the extent that Ill join the parade of predictions, it will be to predict that 2005 will be a year in which Wintel dominance of enterprise IT agendas dramatically declines. People tolerate lack of technology choice as the price of faster improvement, but 2004 was a year when the product pipelines of Intel and Microsoft badly stalled. New IT opportunities are coming from standards bodies, in areas such as Web services, more than from vendor presentations. Thats a process that feeds itself, as vendors are forced to dance to the standards tune.

And by the end of 05, more enterprise IT builders will get exactly what they need, in the way they choose to buy it.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee has 22 years experience as a developer, consultant, educator, speaker, and internationally published author and analyst. He writes developer-oriented product reviews, emerging-technology analyses and his weekly Epicenters column.

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