We recently showed postcards from the year 1900 that made interesting predictions of the year 2000, and that were surprisingly prescient. But 100 years is very hard to do; what about just 20? In 1994, AT&T, at the time a very big land line telephone company and heir to the Bell Telephone System, whose Bell Labs were probably the greatest invention engine in history, ran a series of ads showing a vision of the future, with the tag line "You Will." These were around the block last year but were just revived by VOX, which reminded me of my visit to Disney World in the early '90s where I saw them for the first time at EPCOT and was totally excited.
In fact, many of the things they promised us were already in development or already existed; they just weren't too common. Home computers were in a lot of homes and offices but Internet connections were not, and the first Web browser, Mosaic, had just came out the year before. GPS satellites were already circling the Earth, but for military use only. Video phones had been tried, and failed, many times over the years.
But when you take a director like David Fincher of "Fight Club" and the voice of Tom Selleck, the results are pretty impressive, and it all seemed fresh and new.
Some things, like e-readers, followed the “You Will” series very quickly. Peanut Press started in 1998, and I used it on my Palm Pilot. I remember my first book was Seth Godin’s "The Ideavirus," still a good read. “Paying a toll ... without slowing down" was happening already in Europe. Watching “the movie you wanted to ... the minute you wanted” wasn’t too far behind either. Videoconferencing was happening but it was really expensive. Distance learning, telemedicine and home automation were all on the radar but really basic. About the only one that we're still totally waiting for: “Have you ever checked out at the supermarket, a whole cart at a time?”
Given that AT&T was a phone company and that cellphones already were common, it’s a big miss that they imagine tucking in your baby from a phone booth or getting your driver's license or concert tickets from an ATM. (They did predict that we would do phone calls from our watches, and do show a form of tablet, sending faxes (!!!) from the beach). Phone booths are extinct and ATMs are not far behind as we go cashless. The pervasive Internet, and then the smartphone, replaced AT&T’s land lines that connected all these machines.
But then I remember sending an email on my Blackberry when Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, totally dismissive of the idea that anyone would want a phone without a keyboard, that what did anyone need other than a talking and email machine?
The other big surprise is that almost none of these wonderful visions, despite the promise of the ads, actually came from AT&T. The company that ran the labs that invented the transistor, the laser, UNIX, the CCD that makes digital photography possible, the home of eight Nobel Prizes, in the end did not deliver on any of its promises.
The late great Yogi Berra noted that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” AT&T did a pretty good job of extrapolating from the tech that was being worked on at the time, but the business itself missed the big ones: the importance of the Internet, the impact of the smartphone — and its own impending irrelevance.