Worst Predictions

#7

Gates Doubts Google’s Potential

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Gates at Davos

Gates at Davos

‘Let’s see if they still want to run the business in two or three years.’
Bill Gates, on Sergey Brin and Larry Page, 2003

The future is hard to see even for the smartest people. The reason is simple: we focus on the wrong things. We look at technology and ask ourselves how it will get faster, better, and smaller. But actually, radical change comes from somewhere else: shifts in consumer behavior. Think about what has happened to the media industry. For the past 50 years or so, media technology has been on a steady path of improvement: bigger screens, more resolution, better sound. Then the unthinkable happened. Rather than buying super-audio CDs, consumers started listening to low-quality MP3s. Instead of upgrading their movie library to Blu-ray discs, they started watching grainy videos on YouTube. People stepped off the traditional product cycle and traded quality for convenience and connectivity. If you looked at Google, as Microsoft did in 2003, you might have simply seen a fast-growing Web-search startup. “These Google guys, they want to be billionaires and rock stars and go to conferences and all that,” said Bill Gates that year. “Let us see if they still want to run the buiness in two to three years.” What was harder to perceive is that Google represented not just a process improvement in network technology, but the vanguard of a major shift in consumer action. The Web might have started as a series of documents joined together by hyperlinks, but it was fast becoming something else. Consumers were creating content, storing data, sharing media, and accessing applications—and all of it was taking place in a Web browser. In five short years, the tyranny of the Wintel era had been broken. The Web, rather than Windows, had become the operating system to watch.

 Walsh is an authority and speaker on digital innovation. He is the author of Futuretainment: Yesterday the World Changed, Now It’s Your Turn, published in November by Phaidon. Follow him on Twitter.

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