Shortly after Will Wright released yet another version of his SimCity in the mid 1990s, I was visiting Maxis' studios and chatting with Will about evolutionary system and self-generating software. SimCity was a city that built itself according to a few rules -- which the player tweaked and tried to maximize. It was the ultimate nerd god-game, the nerd playing god. Will offered to give me a peek preview of his next project. SimCity was so cool, I was expecting something even more generative, more ambitious, more god-like -- something like Spore. Will steered me to a monitor and clicked up a oblique view of a house. It was a cut-away house and you could look into the house from that same oblique angle. Inside were blocky figures of people. These virtual people moved about and said things in dialog balloons.
"What does it do? " I asked.
"The sims, that's what we call them, interact with each other according to the rules you set," Will said. "You assign their traits, and skills, and interests, and they interact with each other. You try to get them to do things together." He showed me how the girl sim got the guy sim to go to a party with her.
"They're sort of like dolls?"
I was incredibly disappointed. Dolls? What kid is going to buy a video game playhouse? I didn't get it. Since this was just a prototype maybe it was just a sketch and the real thing would come later. But when the Sims were released, that's what it was. An electronic autonomous doll house. I hoped Will would make his money back, because I didn't see a big hit there.
Boy was I wrong. Electronic Arts (which bought Maxis years ago) just announced yesterday that they shipped the 100 millionth copy of the Sims.
I've been wrong about a bunch of other things too. When I saw the first version of Photoshop in 1990 I thought it was a joke. All that money for a program that allows you to paint over your pixelated photo? Everything is jaggedy. Printed out with dot matrix or even laser ink, it degraded a fine photograph. Why would I want to do that? What I could not imagine was that scanners, storage, and processing power would rapidly improve to make the pixels invisible, and that the magic of the darkroom would be completely transported to this piece of software.
For that matter I was wrong about ink jets. As dot matrix printers they were low-class serfs compared to laser printers. I had written them off as worth tracking in the future. Wrong again.
Quicken? Balancing your checkbook on a computer? That was for people with too much time on their hands, and only a step up from typing recipes into the computer. Wrong: Quicken has sold a million copies.
My impression of eBay for its first year was that it was WAY marginal, useful only for the those obsessives who drove to 10 garage sales each weekend. I mean auctions were for fanatics. I was so wrong about this it is not even funny.
In the other direction, I thought push technologies like Pointcast were going to spread fast, and that we'd all be working in Second Life by now. Wrong, wrong. There was also a music software package (called MusicJam?) released about 1987 or so that allowed you to play improvisational music without hitting a "wrong" note. This is it! Everyone can be musicians now. I felt sure it would improve and be installed in every electronic instrument made. So wrong.
Sadly I can detect no pattern to my mis-predictions. In some cases, I did not anticipate improvements and advances that would remake a pathetic first version into a truly cool tool. In others I anticipated advances that never came.
If I could actually tell which inventions were going to succeed, I'd be a billionaire. You would too.
I believe no one can always be right about what will work because the number of variables determining success are too high. The details of execution for each idea matter greatly. The Sims by a different genius, different company, different platform, different ecosystem may well have flopped. Photoshop by a different team may have crashed. Likewise, MusicJam or Second Life is a different setting may have flown.
This inherent uncertainty about success is what makes life so interesting.
I'll add more to this list as I think of them. Everyone has their own roster of things they were wrong about.