- In the 1980s and 1990s, Steve Jobs made predictions about how technology and the internet would impact daily life that turned out to be surprisingly accurate.
- He predicted virtual assistants like Siri and e-commerce giants like Amazon long before these services existed.
- Among his biggest predictions of all was that the web would be everywhere.
Today, you wouldn’t leave the house without your smartphone. But back in the mid-1980s and 1990s, a device like the iPhone was still far out of the purview of most tech companies and the average consumer. Modern online media giants like Facebook and YouTube were still at least 20 years away, and Google first became a company in 1998.
To say the tech landscape was a much different place would be an understatement.
Yet Steve Jobs made several assessments about the impact that computers and the internet would have on our lives in speeches and interviews from the 1980s and 1990s. His remarks, particularly the ones he made in this Wired interview from 1996, were remarkably on-point.
Here’s what Jobs got right:
Apple launched the iPad in 2010, but it appears that Jobs had been thinking about tablets since as far back as 1983.
In an audio recording from Jobs’ speech at the International Design Conference in Aspen that year, Jobs refers to “an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you that you that you can learn in five minutes.” After the full recording surfaced in 2012 on the Life, Liberty, and Technology Blog, many media outlets pointed out that this description sounds very similar to the iPad.
Long before we had Siri or Alexa, Jobs predicted modern virtual assistants when asked about the role of computers in 1984.
“The next stage is going to be computers as ‘agents,'” he said in a 1984 interview with Newsweek’s Access Magazine published by The Daily Beast. “In other words, it will be as if there’s a little person inside that box who starts to anticipate what you want. Rather than help you, it will start to guide you through large amounts of information. It will almost be like you have a little friend inside that box.”
That sounds very similar to the way Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby, and the Google Assistant work on iPhones and Android phones today. These digital helpers learn more about you and your habits the more you use them and surface contextual information before you ask.
“You’d start to teach it about yourself,” Jobs also said during that same interview. “And it would just keep storing all this information about you and maybe it would recognise that every Friday afternoon you like to do something special, and maybe you’d like it to help you with this routine. So about the third time it asks you: ‘Well, would you like me to do this for you every Friday?’ You say, ‘Yes,’ and before long it becomes an incredibly powerful helper. It goes with you everywhere you go. It knows most of the raw information in your life that you’d like to keep, but then starts to make connections between things …”
More than 20 years before Apple introduced the iPhone, Jobs essentially predicted that these “agents” would live in slates we carry around with us.
“I’ve always thought it would be really wonderful to have a little box, a sort of slate that you could carry along with you,” he also said to Newsweek’s Access magazine in 1984.
And perhaps even more surprisingly, Jobs predicted that people would start using these devices at age 10.
“You’d get one of these things maybe when you were 10 years old, and somehow you’d turn it on and it would say, you know, ‘Where am I?’ And you’d somehow tell it you were in California and it would say, ‘Oh, who are you?'” he also said during the Access magazine interview.
A 2016 study from Influence Central indicates that the average age a child receives their first phone is 10.3 years old. This also lines up with a Nielsen study from 2017 that indicated 45% of parents polled said that they got a service plan for their child’s smartphone between the ages 10 and 12.
Jobs also predicted in 1995 that the internet would make it possible for startups to compete with established corporations because it would allow them to sell products directly to consumers rather than investing in distribution resources.
“Secondly, it’s very exciting because it is going to destroy vast layers of our economy and make available a presence in the marketplace for very small companies, one that is equal to very large companies,” he said in 1995 when speaking to the Computerworld Information Technology Awards Foundation.
Today, startups like Casper sell mattresses directly to consumers, Warby Parker sells frames to people who need eyewear, and Kickstarter lets people support ideas they like.
Jobs reiterated this idea when speaking to Wired in 1996, noting that the internet would be a formidable way to bypass the middleman. This has become a main theme in tech startups for the past 20 years.
“The best way to think of the Web is as a direct-to-customer distribution channel, whether it’s for information or commerce. It bypasses all middlemen. And, it turns out, there are a lot of middlepersons in this society. And they generally tend to slow things down, muck things up, and make things more expensive. The elimination of them is going to be profound,” Jobs said.
And, he warned, “large companies not paying attention to change will get hurt.”
“The Web is just going to be one more of those major change factors that businesses face every decade. This decade, in the next 10 years, it’s going to be the Web. It’s going to be one of them,” Jobs said.
Seems like taxi and record companies and bookstores would agree.
Jobs’ major prediction from the 1996 Wired interview was that the web will be ubiquitous. Sure, lots of people predicted that, but he made a remark about “Web dial tone everywhere” that does hint at the mobile-first world of today.
“There will be Web dial tone everywhere. And anything that’s ubiquitous gets interesting.”
Another big prediction from that 1996 interview: Commerce was going to be killer on the web.
When asked about the main beneficiaries of the web, Jobs said that it would be people who have something to sell: “It’s commerce. People are going to stop going to a lot of stores. And they’re going to buy stuff over the Web!”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was paying attention, even though Amazon was only a small book-focused startup at the time. Twenty years later, Amazon did $US105 billion in net sales in 2015 while retail chains like Walmart are struggling to keep up and shuttering stores.
Of course, as we know now, there were missteps on the way to regularly buying things online. Later in the interview, Jobs said that big-time e-commerce was “about two years away,” but that it was going to be huge.
“The third thing is commerce, which is even harder than complex publishing because you have to tie the Web into your order-management system, your collection system, things like that. I think we’re still two years away. But that’s also going to be huge,” Jobs said to Wired.
There were missteps on the way, like Pets.com, which had little revenue and went out of business in 2000.
Jobs said in that Wired interview that if the “Web got up to 10 per cent of the goods and services in this country, it would be phenomenal.”
According to the US Census, e-commerce accounted for 9.7% of total retail sales in 2018.
One prediction was for fully featured web applications years before terms like Ajax and Web 2.0 were coined: “People are starting to do complex publishing on the Web — very simple forms of it. This will absolutely explode in the next 12 to 18 months.”
“It’s the next big phase of the Web,” Jobs said to Wired. “Have you seen the Federal Express Web site where you can track a package?”
Another shocking revelation from that Wired interview was that Jobs predicted Tesla — or, at least, Tesla’s business model for its dealerships.
“Take auto dealerships. So much money is spent on inventory – billions and billions of dollars. Inventory is not a good thing. Inventory ties up a ton of cash, it’s open to vandalism, it becomes obsolete. It takes a tremendous amount of time to manage. And, usually, the car you want, in the colour you want, isn’t there anyway, so they have got to horse-trade around. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of all that inventory? Just have one white car to drive and maybe a laserdisc so you can look at the other colours. Then you order your car and you get it in a week,” Jobs said.
Today, Tesla “stores” have nearly no cars on-lot. Instead, prospective buyers can check out sample cars and order online or through a salesperson for later delivery, depending on the state. LaserDiscs, however, are not part of the process.
Of course, Tesla’s dealerships could have been influenced by Apple Stores, which were one of Jobs’ projects. So obviously there’s a debate as to whether Jobs predicted this or influenced it.
Now, Tesla is shutting down some of its brick-and-mortar stores in an effort to cut costs as it shifts to online sales, echoing Jobs’ earlier predictions to Wired about e-commerce.
Jobs predicted to Wired that the desktop market will be in the “dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of the decade.” Today, PC sales are continuing to shrink.
“Eventually, Microsoft will crumble because of complacency, and maybe some new things will grow,” he said to Wired. “But until that happens, until there’s some fundamental technology shift, it’s just over.”
In the most recent holiday quarter, shipments of traditional PCs declined by 3.7% year-on-year according to the International Data Corporation.
Jobs seemed to be predicting cloud services as well, like Apple’s iCloud or Google Drive: “The minute that I don’t have to manage my own storage, and the minute I live primarily in a connected versus a stand-alone world, there are new options for metaphors.”
“I don’t store anything anymore, really. I use a lot of email and the Web, and with both of those I don’t have to ever manage storage. As a matter of fact, my favourite way of reminding myself to do something is to send myself email. That’s my storage,” Jobs also said to Wired in 1996.
He even seemed to have an inkling that Chromebooks would be a product before Google had even finished its search engine: “It’s possible that some people could come out with some very interesting Web terminals and sell some hardware.”
“It’s much like the old mainframe computing environment, where a Web browser is like a dumb terminal and the Web server is like the mainframe where all the processing’s done,” Jobs said to Wired.
Jobs was a huge supporter of technology in schools, but even in 1996 he realised that adding technology doesn’t automatically make schools better.
He argued for a more drastic overhaul. Today, his widow, Lauren Powell Jobs, is one of the biggest backers of charter schools.
He also argued to Wired that people were already living in “information overload” and “most people get far more information than they can assimilate anyway.”
Considering the average American consumer checks his or her phone 52 times per day according to Deloitte, Jobs may have been onto something. Screen time management has certainly been an area of focus for Apple in recent years, as it introduced features in its iOS 12 software that provide users with insights about how they’re using their iPhones.
Jobs also knew that computers would be most useful for communication back in 1985, long before smartphones and social networks like Facebook and Instagram existed.
When speaking with Playboy in 1985, Jobs explained why computers will be essential in homes by saying the following:
“The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it to a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people – as remarkable as the telephone.”
That sounds an awful lot like how we use our smartphones today.
Today, six out of the top 15 free apps in Apple’s iPhone App Store are all centered on communication, such as Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and Gmail, according to app analysis firm AppAnnie.
But even with all of those predictions about how the web could revolutionise industries, Jobs did say that technology doesn’t change the world, which is arguably wrong!
“The Web is going to be very important. Is it going to be a life-changing event for millions of people? No. I mean, maybe. But it’s not an assured Yes at this point. And it will probably creep up on people.
“It’s certainly not going to be like the first time somebody saw a television. It’s certainly not going to be as profound as when someone in Nebraska first heard a radio broadcast. It’s not going to be that profound,” Jobs said.
Eleven years later, Jobs introduced the iPhone.
This is an update of a story originally published in 2016.
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