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A prescient footnote (oddhead.com)
261 points by jplewicke on July 15, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

Those footnotes have a mix of prescience and just plain wrong. For instance, there's one about how a good open source browser can fundamentally change the industry; and Firefox has in that time gained much ground and helped spur innovation in IE and across the web (as have WebKit and Chrome). However, Firefox was already underway by the time he wrote this, so that prediction isn't necessarily so forward looking.

His opposition to client-side software, though, is less prescient. He says that JavaScript may not be available when you can browse the web on your phone; but JavaScript support is now one of the distinguishing features of new smartphones. He says that writing client-side apps is a bad idea, but the popularity of client-side JavaScript is proving that wrong. Mostly, Java applets themselves were a bad technology, but client side code that integrates with the Web is a popular idea, in the form of Flash and JavaScript.

So yeah, there's one prescient quote in there, but some more that are wrong. And many people were hoping for an Apple iPod/phone for quite a while; see, for example, http://technologizer.com/2009/12/28/iphone-rumors/ (the first list of collected iPhone rumors I found in a google search).

Hold on a second.

He says that writing client-side apps is a bad idea, but the popularity of client-side JavaScript is proving that wrong

What's the original quote? I bet that in "client-side apps is a bad idea", he was talking about desktop apps as opposed to web apps. Client-side JS is very much a web app thing, so far from refuting the prediction, it confirms it. And indeed the prediction turned out correct, if not so prescient as to be newsworthy years later.

Assuming I'm guessing correctly, that brings us to 3 correct predictions vs. 1 incorrect one, quite a bit better a record than you're implying.

Edit: Also, since you allude to "some more that were wrong": care to say what they were?

"In 1995, when we started Viaweb, Java applets were supposed to be the technology everyone was going to use to develop server-base applications. Applets seemed to us an old-fashioned idea. Download programs to run on the client? Simpler just to go all the way and run the programs on the server. We wasted little time on applets, but countless other startups must have been lured into this tar pit. Few seem to have escaped alive."

p. 227, from scrolling around a bit from the Google Books links in the original post: http://books.google.com/books?id=B4dk0tYPrckC&pg=PA228&#...

Also, pp. 228-229:

"I would not even use Javascript, if I were you; Viaweb didn't. Most of the Javascript I see on the Web isn't necessary, and much of it breaks. And when you start to be able to browse actual web pages on your cell phone or PDA (or toaster), who knows if they'll even support it."

Note that this is just from reading a few of the footnotes from that link; I haven't read the rest of the book, so I can't speak much on it. All I'm saying is that he got some things right, some wrong, and that other people were talking about an iPhone before he did.

And I should have said "a few prescient quotes, and a few that are wrong." The "one prescient quote" that I wrote was a mistake on my part, as I had just discussed two prescient quotes (iPhone and open-source browser innovation); not sure why I wrote "one."

>I would not even use Javascript, if I were you; Viaweb didn't. Most of the Javascript I see on the Web isn't necessary, and much of it breaks. And when you start to be able to browse actual web pages on your cell phone or PDA (or toaster), who knows if they'll even support it.

I read this as being advice for the then-present, not a prediction. "Javascript isn't necessary, doesn't work well, and it's not guaranteed that it will work in future."

The part about "when you start to be able to browse actual web pages" sure sounded like a prediction; and by the time mobile web browsers caught up to the point where you could reasonably browse the open web on them, they were perfectly capable of running JavaScript just as well as desktop browsers.

This book was published in 2004, the same year that Gmail was released making heavy use of JavaScript to provide a much better webmail experience than previous competitors. So, it wasn't even that great a description of the present, other than the fact that he probably actually wrote it before the release of Gmail.

My main point is just that if you look at the one quote about an Apple phone with a web browser, out of context, he does look fairly prescient; but if you look at the rest of them, and the history of iPhone rumors, he has about as good a track record as anyone reasonably bright and paying attention to the industry.

And WebKit has certainly rejuvenated the mobile web industry.

And many people were hoping for an Apple iPod/phone for quite a while; see, for example, http://technologizer.com/2009/12/28/iphone-rumors/ (the first list of collected iPhone rumors I found in a google search).

This was published in 2009. Hackers and Painters came in 2004.

Er, that was a collection of rumors about an Apple phone from before the iPhone was released. Yes, it was collected after the release of the iPhone, but it's reporting on rumors and speculation from before the iPhone, including one from 2002: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/19/technology/19APPL.html?pag...

"And now come signs that Mr. Jobs means to take Apple back to the land of the handhelds, but this time with a device that would combine elements of a cellphone and a Palm -like personal digital assistant."

Alan Kay was heard to have said something along the lines of "Give this a 9-inch screen and you'll take over the world" when he first saw an iPhone.

My favorite one of these was from my favorite music band, The KLF, who after the success of "Doctor in the TARDIS" decided to write a book called The Manual, Or How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, which explains, as it says on the tin, how to go about producing a hit record without any money or musical talent.

One of the most impressive things about this book is this bit, from the section on coming up with a good catchy chorus for your smash hit, something people will remember:

Stock, Aitkin and Waterman, however, are kings of writing chorus lyrics that go straight to the emotional heart of the 7" single buying girls in this country. Their most successful records will kick into the chorus with a line which encapsulates the entire emotional meaning of the song. This will obviously be used as the title. As soon as Rick Astley hit the first line of the chorus on his debut single it was all over - the Number One position was guaranteed:

"I'm never going to give you up"

It says it all. It's what every girl in the land whatever her age wants to hear her dream man tell her. Then to follow that line with:

"I'm never gonna let you down I'm never going to fool around or upset you"


Amazing. By two decades these guys anticipated mashups and the Rickroll.

By two decades these guys anticipated mashups and the Rickroll.

No. The people who bought the single in 1987 were responding to the song very differently from the people who turned it into an internet meme 20 years later. The passage you quote describes the former; it doesn't predict the latter.

True, but if the song weren't as singularly, brilliantly catchy as it is it probably wouldn't have legs as a meme.

I thought it has become a meme because it is so annoying.

Ironically, Scratch (graphical programming tool for kids), which uses Alan Kay's Squeak language was removed from the App Store presumably because it violated 3.3.2. ( http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1268382 )

Even more ironically, Squeak is a derivative of Smalltalk-80, a Smalltalk implementation that a research group at Apple released.

To clarify: Smalltalk-80 was released by a research group at PARC. Squeak was released by a research group at Apple. And then later a research group at Disney.

Their anti-copyright stance was also prescient. "The Manual" is a great mythbuster and should be taught in schools.

I can't believe you didn't end that post with a suspiciously innocent-looking link.

Very impressive. In 1994 (I think, I can't be sure of the date anymore), I wrote an article in MacWorld France where I said the combination of Apple's GUI with the Unix kernel had a promising future.

I didn't know it would take another 10 years...

Actually, it's more or less NeXT's GUI with prettier bitmaps. It's just called MacOS.

Once back to Apple, Jobs could use some characteristic Mac stuff, like the menu bar on the top of the screen (disfunctional on multi-monitor or big-screen settings), the shelf went to the left, the dock went down, the recycler became a trashcan and the filesystem browser was renamed "Finder" ;-)

But it's NeXT to the core. Never wondered why so many important class names start with "NS"?

Something to that effect had been around for a while by then: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A/UX

Apple has a wealth of fascinating abandoned projects.

When they fail, they fail with style.

I'd love to have an A/UX box.

Edit: didn't think of it this way when writing the above, but a unix kernel with an actual, Apple designed, Mac GUI on top was actually a failure... Go figure.

I've got an IIsi with A/UX on it. It's pretty neat, though a bit slow--9M of RAM isn't quite enough. I'd love to give you a hand setting up your own machine, let me know. :)

Sadly, I have no MMU-equipped 68K Mac. A/UX required one. :-/

One of the old 68k Apple Workgroup Servers 95s would be awesome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Workgroup_Server

A/UX 3.0 on a Mac II is what I used to run my BBS on. Everyone else was using a PC with DOS or some QNX or BSD...

Not to be argumental, but I feel that 1994 era Macintosh and OS X are quite different beasts UI wise. I can't stand Classic; I love OS X.

That said, I do like the things Gnome lifted from Classic, I'm just not sure that your predicition bares out beyond a superficial examination.

In hindsight if you do enough searching you can always find people who predicted, or appeared to predict, future events.

It depends how specific the predictions are. Anyone can make some vague Nostradamus type prediction. Whereas I actually take pride in my spring '07 analysis of why cell phone software was broken:


(Which isn't phrased as a prediction, but is basically equivalent in that it can only be proven or disproven by future events.)

The funny thing is that the post sounds completely banal today, but at the time there were several hundred comments about how wrong I was and all sorts of industry insiders calling me dumb.

A lot of your analysis applies with equal force today, and so has been falsified by intervening events. For example, you say: "Let's say that against all odds you get a few early adopters. To everyone else it will look like they are just sending text messages. Unlike the iPod, your software is invisible. Invisible software isn't viral." This is still true today (no one can tell what I'm doing while I fiddle with my phone).

You also say that "the next generation of WiFi will make your product obsolete in two years anyway." Well, it's been three years, and the next generation of WiFi hasn't made anything obsolete.

You also say this: "Cell phones don't fit into girl's pants. Remember how the women you asked said they would only use your software if it had a vibrate mode? Oops." I don't know if this is a prophecy that women won't use cell phones or what exactly it is.

The WiFi part I was clearly wrong about, it ended up being Apple and not a shift in communications standards that was the key disruptor for the industry. But I disagree on the other two points. If someone is playing a game on their iPhone today then it is pretty obvious, or at least much more obvious than the pre-iPhone days when cell phones had tiny black and white screes. And as for the thing about women, women used to store their cell phones in their purses and not in their pants until phones like the iPhone and the razor came along. Without this shift it would have been very, very difficult for services like twitter to have taken off.

> the pre-iPhone days when cell phones had tiny black and white screes


Ha, this made me search the web for things PG said recently. I didn't find anything that specific although I wonder what he thinks of Google/Facebook or Android/iPhone standoffs

Come to think of it, I wonder what is going to happen to Microsoft? Something is obviously coming (they won't just fade into background), but what would it be?

People say that oh, don't worry Microsoft will become just like IBM, but I don't buy it. IBM does a lot of different things, and it did even more in the past but stopped. Microsoft, on the other hand, really does just one thing well: Windows/Office and, assuming those are going to fade away, what does it leave them with? That's why I believe there's going to be a major shift/transition in Microsoft business model.

The closest record of his current predictions would presumably be the YC roster.

PG also made this statement in May 2009 (iPad released April 2010):

What would be your dream setup?

I'd like it if the Air was about half the size. I don't know why Apple won't make something in between the Air and an iPhone...

Source: http://paul.graham.usesthis.com

When the Mac first came out, Newsweek asked me what I [thought] of it. I said: Well, it's the first personal computer worth criticizing. So at the end of the presentation, Steve came up to me and said: Is the iPhone worth criticizing? And I said: Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you'll rule the world.

- Alan Kay

That's what he looks like? I don't know why I imagined PG to look a lot more like a bearded Unix-type ...?

pg is not the UNIX-type. He avoids systems-level stuff like the plague, as far as I can tell. rtm and tlb did the UNIX work at Viaweb and, I believe, rtm does the UNIX stuff for HN. pg is a smug lisp weenie (and I mean that in the best possible way). He's also a serious Apple fanboy, which the right and proper UNIX beards tend not to be.

yes, he is in fact Sir Paul McCartney's evil programming twin.

That's after pmarca let the cat out of the bag on Charlie Rose.

Heh, I made the same prediction one year before Apple released the iPhone. http://stuff4ben.blogspot.com/ Oddly enough, it was the last post I made on my blog. Wish I could have capitalized on my foresight.

Your blog post reads more like a wish than a prediction. "I want my Apple iPod to make phone calls for me, play video's for me, play J2ME games for me, be WiFi enabled so it can login to my corporate network and check my email on Exchange, take 5MP pictures for me, allow me to IM people and surf the net, and play MP3's all in an iPod-like fit and finish. Why is this so hard?"

Read a little further: "Once Apple figures this out, their record iPod sales from 2005 will pale in comparison." and "I'd rather carry one sleek iPod-ish device that does everything for me."

You see wishes do come true!

There had been talk of "convergence" for years, where the digital camera, digital music player, digital phone, PDA, etc. would be combined into one device.

However, that's not exactly an earthshaking prediction. I mean, really, did anyone think that this wouldn't eventually happen? It's more of a question of when. In fact, when I read your quote, you're not predicting something, you're asking for it.

Suppose you've made such a prediction about a tech company. How do you act on it? You can buy stock, of course, but is there a more powerful action available?

There's a bigger problem. There's always going to be a spot-on prediction ex post. But you need to know which prediction is spot-on ex ante.

If you knew a technology was going to take off, learning their programming language/API and becoming a well-known expert on it could pay great dividends. Additionally, you could work there to make contacts and learn even more. Finally, you could try to join their developer programs while they are still in beta.

Note that unlike suggestions to purchase stock in the company, this advice applies to technology at private companies, as well.

are humanized forms of indentured servitude legal anymore? for example, could you pay to send someone to the bignerdranch bootcamp to learn iphone dev, but then have some way of mitigating the risk that they don't then go ahead and auction their new skills, acquired at your expense, on the market?

There are certain contracts you can make where you agree to work for X company for Y years if they pay for your education, or you have to pay them back for the cost. The U.S. Armed Forces does this with ROTC and the military academies. Several corporations will pay for an MBA if you come back to work for them afterwards, but you have to pony up the cash yourself if you choose not to work for them.

In all these cases, the choice is always "Work for us or pay us back" - I don't think you can structure a contract so that they must work for you without running afoul of the 13th amendment.

Aren't these called non-competes?

No, because I could train you to make iPhone apps for dentist appointments and then you could go sell your skills to make iPhone apps for farting. FartGenerator, Inc. is not in competition with iHaveAToothache LLC.

Leverage and buy stock. The only thing that stops you from increasing the size of your bet is the risk of the downside. To some point, this is manageable, but after that point, it becomes pure insanity. YMMV.

Shorting the competitors because you think a company is going to do very well is actually a bad idea -- it's entirely possible that Microsoft would have been able to open another very profitable market.

Buy Out of the money call options. lots of leverage for small premiums.

They tend to not have that long times until maturity. Going long stock has an unique advantage for an investment strategy -- you do not need to know timing that well.

Prediction markets. They're like an elaborate, worldwide bet. Shame they're not government-sanctioned; a world with ubiquitous prediction markets would be interesting indeed.


Sell the stock of its competitors short.

"The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent." -- John Maynard Keynes.

Taking a short position in the competitors is troublesome because you need to time it right. If you think apple can win, you can go long any time the stock is low and end up a winner.

who was apple competitors in 2000s anyway? I don't recall anyone noticeable

What happens when the entire market segment balloons? APPL might beat out MSFT, but if everyone is more profitable, your short failed.

Side-note: Apple's ticker symbol is AAPL, not APPL. It got me the first times too.

Are there publicly-available financial instruments that account for this?

A put order would work well for this, IIRC.

Don't you have to borrow stock to sell it short? Can you do that for 6 years?

You have to know what their compeditors are. Pre iPhone, Apple's compeditors were Microsoft. The iPhone makes it look like Apple's compeditors now are Nokia/RIM (the makers of Blackberry). However a case could be made that Apple's current iPhone compeditor is or will be Google. So if you wanna bet on the iPhone, it's not clear who you should short.

Bad reasoning: Remember the hits, forget the misses.

The hits are impressive nonetheless. I think that there is a lesson to take away over here; perhaps pg is good at this because he has the combination of common sense, practical knowledge and experience?

It's quite easy to detract from/criticize something, but to learn something from it is everything.

A given prediction can only be considered impressive in relation to the predictor's track record. If pg's made a thousand similar public predictions and this is the only one to come true, then it's not impressive. There is insufficient evidence presented in TFA to judge whether or not this prediction was "particularly prescient" or not.

What about the 2nd comment on the post, by "Sean O"?

Javascript/Ajax has been fundamental to "new-age" tech giants. See Google's Gmail.

A lot of JS on the web does still break all the time, to be fair. It's not like he predicted it would never improve.

I'm pretty sure PG bought a lot of Apple stock in 2001-2003

A conversation several jobs ago, well before the iPhone:

Engineering Manager: Well, mobile is obviously a next big thing.

Me: You know what would be hot? If you could be listening to your MP3, then you get a call and the music fades out into your call. Then when the call ends, it fades back in. That would sell like hotcakes.

Engineering Manager: [Looks at me like I'm an idiot]

So, the key to being seen as prescient is to make sure you get it in writing. John Doe of Hoboken could have said the same thing, but it wouldn't be possible to quote him on it since he only told his barber. Good reason to start blogging, I guess.

Perhaps Apple reads pg, so it was a self-fulfilling prophecy...

Does Apple read Hacker News?

If Apple gives me a free iPhone 4, Microsoft will be in big trouble...

Nowadays, they probably care more about Google than Microsoft. Nice try though.

Or maybe pg is really Steve Jobs.


Everybody has opinions. Some of them become true, most don't.

Yeah, no disrespect to Graham, but oatmeal-against-the-wall....

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