Grading Cringely

Cringely’s last PBS column is up, and I thought I’d honor the last installment of the only consistently-wrong blog I subscribe to with just a touch of the analysis I wanted to give to every Cringely post. In this week’s episode, Bob looks back on his predictions for 2008:

I wrote a year ago that we’d see the beginning of a shift away from PC-centrism with other platforms beginning to supercede the venerable PC. This is a slow process as I said it would be but generally I think I was correct. Sales growth for PCs slowed in general while growth for smartphones and netbooks increased. I never said PC sales were going in the toilet but it seems clear that the action these days is elsewhere, so I’m going to claim this one.

Let’s compare this with the original prediction:

1) The personal computer will decline (or continue its decline) as our key IT platform, replaced slowly by Internet-centric devices of all kinds from phones to TVs to PDAs. Everything will BE a PC of course, but we won’t call them that.

The prediction was not for “the beginning of a shift”; it was for a decline. The economy has come to a screeching halt in 2008 and PC sales continue to grow, just not as quickly as before. There’s only one “smartphone” that made any real dent in the role of the PC in the past year, and that’s the iPhone. More to the point, netbooks—cheap laptops with specs that would have been top of the line a year or two ago—aren’t PCs? The prediction points to devices “from phones to TVs to PDAs”. No mention of netbooks, specific mention of TVs (which, if anything, have become less relevant), and a baffling reference to a product category that barely exists any more. And no mention of “portable media players” like the iPod Touch.

Either the original prediction was so vague as to be completely meaningless (“technology will eventually change…”), or it was wrong. 0/1.

I said the Digital TV conversion would be a nightmare, though the greatest pain would be felt in 2009 when the analog transmitters are actually turned off. I think this is correct. Poll your friends and you’ll find most are in denial. While everyone has seen a DTV commercial, there are millions of people who still don’t know what’s happening. Free converter boxes are sold out, which ought to be good, but expected DTV sales have not met forecasts, so I say there are 10-15 million people who are going to wake up mad as hell in February. So I got this one right and claim it for 2009, too. While it may seem quiet now, February and March are going to be ugly.

On its own this argument is unconvincing: the changeover actually is a nightmare, but nobody has noticed because they’re all in denial? But let’s look at the original prediction:

2) This one is really for 2009 but I know we’ll see the effects in 2008. The DTV conversion, where U.S. analog broadcast television stations are turned off in February 2009 and we all have to switch to digital TVs or to cable or satellite or buy those DTV converter boxes, well this whole conversion thing is going to be an absolute disaster. I don’t expect technical problems at all, but the public won’t understand it, the government will blow it, and at the last moment some politicians will even try to cancel it.

I don’t know how to measure public understanding, but there’s no evidence that the government has “blown it”, and as far as I know politicians did not try to cancel it. 0/2.

I wrote that Cisco would acquire Macrovision, which didn’t happen.

0/3, but credit to Cringely for the first prediction with well-defined evaluation criteria.

I predicted that venture capitalists would sour on start-ups with revenue models based solely on advertising… I probably got this one wrong, though I’d say it is still coming.

0/4. I would give credit for dinging himself on another judgement call he could have tried to spin, but the classic Cringely tactic of “I’m wrong now, but that’s just because the industry needs time to catch up with me…” wipes out any bonus points.

I predicted that Google would bid and win the 700 MHz spectrum auction.

0/5, but another quantifiable prediction.

I predicted that IBM would have bad earnings, would try to sell Global Services, and failing that might fund the sale itself. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

0/6.

IBM’s earnings were saved by the weak dollar or I would have been right.

You just lost your bonuses from the Cisco and Google predictions.

I said Microsoft would indefinitely extend the life of Windows XP. I might well claim this one but – like Wall Street – I may as well take all my losses while I can.

0/7.

Of course I had to say that Steve Ballmer was going to retire, too…

0/8.

I said Apple would embrace multi-touch pointing in its computers. They did. Whew!

Wait—what? Apple embraced multi-touch pointing? They have multi-touch trackpads on their laptops, but they’ve had those for quite a while—the MacBook Pro I got in 2007 had multi-finger scrolling, so this isn’t really new in 2008, is it? Let’s check the original prediction:

9) As part of its transition from a PC company to a consumer electronics and content company, Apple will introduce – and trumpet in a huge media show – its replacement for the mouse. Really.

Uh…no. No replacement for the mouse. No huge media show. And major penalty points for calling this one in your favor. 0/9.

I said a 3G iPhone was coming. Yes! And an Apple subnotebook/tablet. No! This latter device remains in the wings, however.

Cringely conveniently avoids mentioning that (a) a 3G iPhone was completely obvious, and (b) the CEO of AT&T had already confirmed a 3G iPhone at the time the prediction was made. Still, 1/11.

Apple didn’t license ANYTHING, much less its embedded OS X.

1/12.

Apple DIDN’T license the Windows API, DIDN’T dump Akamai for Google (ironically Google became an Akamai customer), and Season 2 of NerdTV never appeared.

Final tally: 1/15, with the one success being a prediction of an obvious product that was already confirmed in the public record. If you’re looking for insight into the direction of the tech industry, you’re better off reading the newspaper and using some common sense than listening to Cringely.

As for Cringely’s 2009 predictions, most of them are either obvious or hard to quantify. The “mobile device” market obviously has more room for growth (at least in terms of functionality and revenue) than the desktop computer market, there will obviously be IT layoffs, and newspapers will obviously die.

I’ve got no opinion of AMD or cyber theft announcements, but I’ll agree with Cringely that Yahoo will get broken up and the pieces sold off. The preparations have already begun so there’s a low degree of difficulty here, but it’s a valid prediction.

I disagree with Cringely about both Microsoft and Google peaking in 2009, but Cringely defines these as “aggregate peak[s] of wealth and influence” so it’s really just a judgement call. I think Microsoft’s peak is well behind it: in terms of influence, there was once truth to the maxim (originally spoken of IBM) “no one was ever fired for choosing Microsoft products”. After the Vista debacle they’ll never regain the trust they once had from their enterprise customers; their peak was pre-Vista. Google, on the other hand, still has room to grow. They’ve dipped their toes into a few things (wireless auction; Android) but we haven’t seen them really flex their muscles. The ease with which they launched Chrome is just a small example of how they can change the tech landscape without much effort.

I also think it’s a long shot that Apple will buy into the last-mile networking market. I’d love to see them roll their own mobile network (even if it were just wifi with very little coverage) but I don’t think it’s a business they want to be in. They can’t even get MobileMe to work and I don’t think Jobs will let the Apple brand take the hit from mediocre network services. If anyone is going to make a splash here, I think it will be Google.

Update 2009-01-17

Looks like Obama’s transition team has called for a delay in the DTV transition. I still raise an eyebrow at Cringely calling this one in his favor in 2008, but his score is up to 1/14 or 2/15, depending on your point of view.