IN 1996, GOOGLE was still a research project at Stanford, the state-of-the-art PC operating system was Windows 95, and Amazon was a small startup selling books.
And Steve Jobs was not yet back at Apple when he gave a remarkably prescient interview to Wired’s website the same year. Although the iMac, iPod, and iPhone were still years away, and Jobs was working at NeXT, he clearly saw where the computing industry was headed.
And although his later work at Apple clearly influenced the way things turned out, he still offers a slew of predictions that are shockingly accurate today.
Here’s what Jobs got right:
Jobs’ major prediction was that the web will be ubiquitous. Of course, 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: 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. 20 years later, Amazon did $105 billion in net sales in 2015 and even large retail chains like WalMart are struggling to keep up and shuttering stores these days.
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.
There were missteps on the way, like Pets.com, which had very little revenue and went out of business in 2000.
Jobs said if the “Web got up to 10% of the goods and services in this country, it would be phenomenal”. According to the latest US Census, e-commerce accounts for 7.5% of total retail sales today.
Jobs also predicted that the internet would be a formidable way to bypass the middleman, 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.
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.
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 companies, bookstores, and record companies would agree.
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. “Have you seen the Federal Express Web site where you can track a package?”
Another shocking prediction was Jobs predicting 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’ve 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 explained.
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 himself.
Steve Jobs predicted that the desktop market will be in the “dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of the decade.” In 2006, Apple’s Mac moved to Intel processors, shaking up the staid market. Today, Apple is the only PC maker showing sales growth.
“Eventually, Microsoft will crumble because of complacency, and maybe some new things will grow. But until that happens, until there’s some fundamental technology shift, it’s just over.”
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 said.
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.
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.
Jobs also argued that people were already living in “information overload” and “most people get far more information than they can assimilate anyway”. That might have been true and remains true today, but obviously Instagram and Twitter addicts would disagree.
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’ll 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.
11 years later, Jobs introduced the iPhone.