The Future of Information Technology in Education
An ISTE Publication


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Chapter 2
The Forecasting Business

  •    It is easy to make predictions or forecasts about the future. However, it is not easy to have a high level of accuracy in these forecasts. This chapter begins with a number of forecasts that people have made in the past. You will be amused by their lack of accuracy. These examples are designed to make the point that it is difficult to predict the future of technology.

       This chapter also contains some information about the worldwide electronics and telecommunications industry. The information indicates that these huge industries are planning to be still larger in the future. The people who are running these companies are predicting a continued very rapid growth in computer and communications technology throughout the world. Their commitment of major resources is shaping the future. One way to accurately predict the future is to create the future.

    Some "Amusing" Forecasts
    Worldwide Growth in Computing Power
    Conclusions and Recommendation

Some "Amusing" Forecasts

  •    What follows are a number of "amusing" quotations. Each section begins with a quote and is then followed by a brief analysis. You may want to attempt to put yourself in the shoes of the people who made these statements. What was their knowledge and world view that led to such poor forecasts? Are today's forecasters producing equally poor forecasts?


    • Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.


      (Pierre Pachet, professor of physiology at Toulouse, 1872.)

       The "theory" of germs represented a major step forward in medicine. Such major breakthroughs in science do not occur very often. The theory of germs led to significant changes in medical practice. Nowadays, even young children are taught to wash their hands and to "cover" their sneezes-to avoid the spread of germs.

    The Telephone


    • This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.


      (Western Union internal memo, 1876.)

       Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1842 and its use gradually spread to much of the world. Using Morse code, printed messages could quickly be sent over long distances. The telegraph technology was well established by the time that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Western Union was a major supplier of telegraph services in the United States.

       When a new technology competes with an existing technology, it is not always easy to see which will win. Who could have foreseen a person driving a car down a freeway, carrying on a telephone conversation with a person flying across an ocean on the other side of the world?

    Motion Pictures


    • Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. … Scholars will soon be able to instruct through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture.


      (Thomas A. Edison, 1913.)


    • I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.


      (Thomas A. Edison, 1922.)

       Thomas A. Edison was a prolific inventor and was very successful in developing companies to produce and market his inventions. He is considered to be one of the inventors of the motion picture. The two quotes give his insights into how the motion picture would revolutionize education. He was wrong.

       A number of years later, similar predictions were made about television, and then about video tape. It seems clear that Edison had little insight into the complexities of an educational system. Education is far more than an information delivery system. We must keep this in mind as we examine some of the possible impacts of information technology on our educational system.

    The Radio


    • The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?


      (David Sarnoff's associates in response to his
      urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.)

       The first commercial radio station began broadcasting in 1920. Few people had a clear vision of the future of commercial radio broadcasts. For example, who would have thought that there would be radios in cars or that people would carry portable radios-even when jogging?

    Electronic Digital Computers


    • I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.


      (Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.)

       Electronic digital computers based on vacuum tube technology were simultaneously developed in England, Germany, and the United States beginning in the late 1930s. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) was built in the United States and became operational in January of 1946. It is considered to be the world's first fully operational, general-purpose electronic digital computer.

       The ENIAC was designed to do numerical calculations-it was an amplification of the desktop calculating machine. It could do the work of several hundred people working with electric calculators. In 1943, Thomas Watson did not envision very many problems that required such massive amounts of calculation.

    The Transistor


    • Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.


      (Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949.)

       The transistor was invented in 1947. At that time, there were less than a dozen computers in the whole world. These were room-filling machines, each employing many thousands of vacuum tubes. In many electronic circuits, a transistor can replace a vacuum tube. Even the very first transistors were much smaller than vacuum tubes and consumed much less electrical power.

       The invention of the transistor was a major breakthrough in science. Its inventors were awarded the Nobel Prize. Further research on transistors led to the invention of the integrated circuit. The integrated circuit has made transistors much smaller and much cheaper. A single integrated circuit-smaller than a dime-can now contain many tens of millions of transistors. Worldwide production of transistors is now well in excess of a sixth of a million transistors per person per year, for every person on earth. This progress in chip technology has made possible laptop and palmtop computers.



    • But what … is it good for?


      (Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems
      Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.)

       By 1968, timeshared computing was a well-established technology. Terminals could be directly wired to a timeshared computer, or the connection could be made over a telephone line. In 1968, timeshared computing using a 10 character per second (uppercase only) Teletype terminal cost about $40 per hour.

       The first integrated circuit was developed in 1958, and the first single-chip central processing unit (the first microprocessor) was developed in 1971 for use in a calculator. At that time, and for years to come, IBM was firmly committed to the mainframe computer. The Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM did not envision the very rapid progress that would occur in microprocessor technology.

    The Apple Computer


    • So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'


      (Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer.)

       Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer, Inc. in 1975. A number of other start-up companies and already well-established companies began manufacturing microcomputers at about the same time. This all happened because of the development of microprocessors powerful enough to be used in a general-purpose computer.

    Personal Computers


    • There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.


      (Ken Olson, president, chairman and
      founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.)

       Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) produced the world's first minicomputer in 1960. Although DECs first minicomputer, the PDP-1, cost $120,000, it was the start of a major trend away from mainframe computers toward smaller sized, lower priced computers that could be used in a room that was not air-conditioned. DEC was slow to realize that microcomputers would eventually have capabilities that rivaled minicomputers at a much lower price. The relatively low costs of microcomputers have opened up school use and home use as major computer markets.

       Many of the future-looking insights illustrated in this section were made by people who were well situated to help shape the future. In most cases, these people eventually came to realize that their initial forecasts had been incorrect. They then made significant contributions to implementation of the technologies they had first denigrated.

       At the same time that some well-situated business people are delaying acting on possible major new technologies, others are making major financial commitments to the new technologies. By doing so, they shape the future. Consider the following quote from Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Corporation:


    • When I went to Xerox PARC in 1979, I saw a very rudimentary graphical user interface. It wasn't complete. It wasn't quite right. But within 10 minutes, it was obvious that every computer in the world would work this way someday. And you could argue about the number of years it would take, and you could argue about who would be the winners and the losers, but I don't think you could argue that every computer in the world wouldn't eventually work this way.


      Wired. (1996, February). p. 102.

       Steve Jobs was able to translate these insights into the creation of the Macintosh computer, which first became available in 1984. Notice the time lag. A rough rule of thumb in the electronics industry is that it takes 5 years to bring an idea from the research laboratory into the commercial marketplace.

Worldwide Growth in Computing Power

  •    Computer technology is no longer a new invention. The year 2001 will see us celebrating 50 years since the commercial introduction of the UNIVAC-the first mass produced computer. Computer electronics is now a huge and still rapidly growing industry. How rapidly will this market continue to grow? Here is one forecast that looks 20 years into the future.
    Growth in the Electronics Industry


    • Vladi Catto, chief economist at Texas Instruments Inc., says the industry might expand by 20% a year for the next two decades. By comparison, since TI made the world's first microchip [integrated circuit] 36 years ago, the industry has averaged 15% annual gains.


      Business Week. (1996, January 8). p. 95.

       A 20% a year growth rate is more than a doubling in 4 years. (If you could earn 20% interest on your money, compounded annually, $1 would grow to $2.07 in 4 years.) Two decades of this pace of change would represent a growth by a factor of more than 38 in the annual dollar sales of the electronics industry.

       The 20% yearly growth rate forecasted by Vladi Catto is a forecast of increased dollar sales. The number of transistors and other electronic components that can be purchased for a given dollar amount has continued to decrease rapidly over the years. For example, a megabyte of chip memory has decreased in price from $550,000 25 years ago to well under $10 today. This indicates how rapid this pace of change has been. People in the electronics industry have gotten used to the idea that the amount of computing power that one can buy for a given amount of money tends to double in less than 2 years. This rapid pace of price to performance improvement has been going on for several decades.

       Now, let's put these two types of change together. Over a period of 4 years, the dollar value of worldwide productivity of chips doubles. Meanwhile, the amount of computing power that a dollar will buy doubles twice. This means that at the end of 4 years, the worldwide productivity of computing power has gone up by a factor of eight. This pace of change has been going on for many years and it appears likely to continue for many more years to come.

       Growth in the telecommunications industry is a key and essential companion component of growth in the electronics industry. It is a combination of computing power and connectivity that is changing the way that the world does business and that is going to change our educational system.

       Fiber optics, communications, cellular telephones, and progress in data compression (reducing the amount of storage that is required for a document or a video also reduces the time needed to transmit it over a telecommunications system) are all making rapid progress.

    Fiber Optic Link Around the Globe


    • A consortium led by AT&T Submarine Systems in the U.S. and NDD Submarine Cable Systems in Japan has begun a $1.5 billion project ("Flag," or Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe) to lay undersea fiber optic cables from England to Japan, with landing points in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, in order to provide 120,000 64kbps circuits. About 50 telecommunication companies from around the world have agreed to purchase capacity on the cable.


      Financial Times. (1996, January 19). p. 4.

       A 64 kilobits per second circuit can carry a high quality telephone conversation. The Flag project will support 120,000 simultaneous long distance telephone calls. However, much faster transmission rates (a much greater bandwidth) are needed for dealing with large amounts of data, such as graphics.

    Boosting Internet Bandwidth


    • Internet service provider iStar beefed up the capacity of its network with new links between Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and the American portion of the Internet and increased its Internet bandwidth 28 times.


      Toronto Financial Post. (1996, January 5). p. 39.

    Another Global Telecom Alliance


    • Telecommunications companies Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, and Sprint are forming an alliance called Global One in order to provide worldwide voice, data and video services for corporate clients; international consumer services (such as calling cards); and international transmission and support to other international carriers. Global One will be competing against two previously formed global alliances: Uniworld, formed by AT&T and four European telecom operators; and Concert, formed by British Telecommunications and MCI.


      Financial Times. (1996, February 1). p. 16.

    AT&T Plans $9 Billion Upgrade


    • AT&T will invest up to $9 billion this year in upgrading its communications network-almost double what it usually budgets for such improvements. About $5 billion of that will go toward the business-markets division to beef up the backbone network, improve fast packet technology, and enhance voice and local services.


      Information Week. (1997, March 10).

       These brief news items indicate that the major telecommunications companies are investing heavily to support continued rapid and worldwide growth of telecommunications.

       The leading electronics and telecommunications companies of the world are committing huge amounts of resources to increase their capacities. This huge commitment of resources is shaping the future. That is, we can base a number of our forecasts for the future uses of electronics and telecommunications on an expectation of continued rapid increases in availability of computing power and telecommunications capacity.

       We conclude this section with two predictions about the future of networking. The first is from Nathan Myhrvold, Senior Vice-President, Advanced Technology, Microsoft. Microsoft is a major force in the world's computer software industry. The second is from Netscape president Jim Clark. Netscape is a world leader in the development of World Wide Web browsers.

    As Big as Gutenberg


    • This [global networks such as the Web] is going to be at least as big as Gutenberg. Soon … digital networks will let people buy anything, meet anyone, and conduct any business over a virtual marketplace. Digitized money will transform regional banking into a global exchange. Third World countries will enter markets that could never be dreamed of before.


      (Nathan Myhrvold, senior vice-president, advanced technology, Microsoft.) Business Week. (1994, November 18). p. 108.

    Internet is "Fundamental Change" in Telecom


    • Netscape president Jim Clark says: "I've been talking to the telecommunications companies and telling them that it's [global networks, such as the Web] the future. It represents the first fundamental change since the telecommunications system was invented. The biggest change up to now was when the telephone moved from a rotary dial to Touch-Tone … that's really a small change compared to this."


      Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (1996, June 4). p. F3.

Conclusions and Recommendation

  •    This chapter contains a number of examples of forecasts or predictions that proved to be wrong. Such examples serve as a warning to people who may want to commit major resources based on forecasts and predictions. "Off the top of the head" predictions are easy to make. Long-range strategic planning based on such predictions is apt to be totally useless. The obvious recommendation is "Look before you leap."

       This chapter also contains a number of brief news items indicating that leaders in the electronics industry are investing heavily in the future of their field. They are building a great deal of increased capacity. They believe that the world is just at the beginning of really massive growth in its use of computer and communications technology. These large investments in capacity building are based on careful long-range strategic planning. The companies making these large investments are shaping the future.

       There is every reason to believe that we are just at the beginning of massive growth in the number and nature of computer facilities and telecommunication facilities that are in use throughout the world. The total worldwide amount of computing power and connectivity bandwidth could each grow by a factor of 1,000 or more during the next two decades. (A more detailed analysis of this assertion is given in Chapter 6.)

       The message for our educational system is clear. Students need to be prepared for adult life in a world that has immense amount of more information technology than is currently available.

       The next chapter contains a brief history of our educational system. The emphasis is on how changes in technology have fostered changes in education in the past.



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