The Wright Brothers and Frequent Flyer Programs or Why Predicting the Future is So Hard

Life as an analyst is exciting. For fifteen years, I have had the privilege of standing at the center of the technology universe, observing the technology landscape, charting the major tends and offering my predictions for the future. In that course of time, I watched as fundamental changes occurred. Changes that were large enough to alter the course of the industry. Changes that were sweeping in nature. The funny thing is they were all changes that were almost universally missed by the pundits and experts.

My personal favorite quote came from a fellow analyst who observed in mid 1995 that the "Internet is merely a passing fad... the CB radio for the 90's." This analyst was in good stead. After all, even Microsoft seemed to have missed the Internet tidal wave for a period of time. So why is the future so hard to predict and why is it that the people who attempt to do so are so very often so dead wrong? Forget whether Apple will introduce a Tablet or a flying car in September. I'm talking about catching what should be the easy stuff.

Imagine, if you will, that you are standing in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the United States. After many attempts and many failures, Orville and Wilbur Wright have finally succeeded in making the first manned flight. While their time aloft is short, this action will change the course of history forever. It will change the way that business is conducted. It will change the very fabric of behavior of mankind well into the 21st century. Now imagine at the end of that first historic flight you were to go to Orville and Wilbur and ask their opinion of airline frequent flyer programs. Starting to see the problem?

The problem with predicting the future is the very nature of the methods used. Most analysts that are good at what they do (myself included, or at least I like to think so) have excellent pattern recognition skills. It is this ability to observe early on the repetition of established rules of behavior that gives a good analyst their edge. The problem is that technology often does not fit established patterns. Inability to think beyond the known and embrace the unknown is the downfall for most pundits. When the Internet hit its stride in the mid 90's too many experts merely looked at it for what it was at the time, a giant network. Much like the early cinematographers who merely filmed stage plays, they could not see the benefits the new medium could provide in terms of communications, commerce and entertainment. In fact, some technologies require several iterations of evolution before they become viable. The Internet was around for nearly 25 years before the World Wide Web was born and gave rise to the critical mass that has changed the way we work and play. The difference between the good analyst and the great analyst is the ability to look at the existing data, see all the patterns and understand why the pattern might be breaking and no longer hold true.

Technology never moves at clear right angles. Rather, it twists and turns at dizzying speed, creating new market opportunities as quickly as it closes down others. So how do you predict the future? How do you seize the opportunity to create the next big thing? One of my heroes, Alan Kay, said it best. "The best way to predict the future, is to invent it".

As for me, I'll keep creating my hypotheses, work to back them up with real data and offer insight and analysis based on that. Oh and I'll also try not to predict what any vendor might or might not do on any given day of the year.