25 Years Ago, Bill Gates Predicted Netflix, iPhones, and Facebook. Here’s What He Got Wrong

Bill Gates

The Microsoft co-founder looks back at his 1995 book The Road Ahead.

In 1995, Bill Gates, then CEO of one of the world’s most successful companies, made some daring predictions about the future we’re now living in. Most of those predictions were uncanny in their accuracy, although a few were completely off-base. Now, 25 years later, with a new book coming out next year, he’s looking back at those predictions, grading his own younger effort, and looking ahead to what’s next.

Here are some of Gates’ most amazing predictions from 1995.

1. He foresaw smartphones almost exactly.

“I was thinking and learning about these things obsessively back then,” Gates writes in a new blog post that looks back at his 1995 book The Road Ahead. That effort paid off when he looked ahead at what he called “the wallet PC.” Aside from the name, he was describing today’s smartphone in startling detail. Here’s some of what he wrote back in 1995:

It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.

He further predicted that the “wallet PC” would be secured with a biometric, possibly a fingerprint, that you could use it to get into a concert or onto an airplane, that it would replace paying with paper money, and that it would tell you via its speaker when your exit was coming up on the highway. He even made a pretty good guess at the price range, from so cheap as to be disposable up to $1,000 or more.

2. He predicted that streaming video would overtake TV.

“Television has been around for fewer than 60 years, but in that time it has become a major influence in the life of almost everyone in the developed nations,” he wrote. But he also knew its days as an all-powerful influence would end. “No broadcast medium we have right now is comparable to the communications media we’ll have once the internet evolves to the point at which it has the broadband capacity necessary to carry high-quality video.”

Noting that in 1995 people routinely recorded programs for later viewing or rented movies from video stores, he wrote, “Video-on-demand is an obvious development. There won’t be any intermediary VCR. You’ll simply select what you want from countless available programs.” (If only Blockbuster had been paying attention.)

3. He knew Facebook was coming.

“Another idea that’s central to The Road Ahead — that technology would allow unprecedented social networking — has pretty much come to pass,” Gates notes in his blog post. What he didn’t foresee is how social networks would help create division and discord (and in some cases violence) at the same time as they brought people together. “I didn’t anticipate how much people would choose to filter out different perspectives and harden their own views,” he writes.

I’d argue that it’s leaders and software developers at the social networks making that choice, rather than the people who use them. Either way, when you consider that Gates made this prediction eight years before Friendster and MySpace launched — at a time when Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old — it’s pretty impressive.

4. But he thought there would be internet kiosks everywhere.

There were also some things Gates got wrong, and the biggest of these may be the “internet kiosks” he thought would be stationed everywhere, indoors and out, “in much the same way that drinking fountains, rest rooms, and pay phones are available now.” These kiosks, he wrote, would replace pay phones and ATM machines. They would allow you to buy tickets and send and receive messages.

This isn’t completely off-base — commuter trains and public transportation routinely provide purpose-built kiosks where you can pay for your tickets, as do many movie theaters. Restaurants increasingly invite you to order at a kiosk, and parking kiosks are pretty much everywhere. Still, the kiosk concept hasn’t caught on the way Gates imagined it.

In part, though, that’s because his other prediction came true so quickly and so completely that it rendered the kiosks unnecessary. Their purpose, he explained, would be to replace your wallet PC, in case you didn’t have one or had left it at home. But in today’s world, most people would never leave their smartphone at home. And they certainly wouldn’t try to get through life without one.

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