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Ten business predictions that were proven to be well and truly wrong

6 min read

27 November 2015

Planning ahead is essential for a small or medium-sized business, as it is for any company. But as 2016 comes increasingly nearer, glaring into a crystal ball can prove a risky tactic – just ask Alan Sugar and J.K. Rowling. Here are ten business predictions that were hugely incorrect.

With the year coming to an end, SME owners and managers will be looking at projected sales figures for the next 12 months, considering new product launches and trying to predict how their markets will look – for better or for worse – in 2016.

Forecasting and forward planning might be essential but gazing into a crystal ball is always risky as even the most successful and prominent business person can discover.

The moral of the story? Make predictions, yes, be sceptical, certainly, but always keep an open mind, especially where technology is concerned.

Most of all, though, don’t underestimate the importance of someone who has an idea and the determination and energy to make it reality.

1. “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”

This was said by Ken Olson, then the president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), 1977. He later clarified his prediction by saying that he wasn’t suggesting every aspect of people’s lives would be controlled by computers. Looks like he was wrong on that too.

2. “There will never be a bigger plane built”

This was said by a Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people. For reference the Airbus 380, the largest passenger plane built to date, can carry 544 passengers – as well as offering the possibility of bars, beauty salons, duty-free shops and restaurants.

3. “The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most”

IBM said this to the to the eventual founders of Xerox in 1959. Their product became a by-word for photocopying. Today, with revenues of nearly $20bn in 2014, Xerox employs over 130,000 people in 180 countries.

4. “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys”

Sir William Preece, chief engineer at the British Post Office made this claim in 1878. In fact, having had more phones per head of population than any other country in the world for decades, fixed lines in the US fell from 46 to 40 per 100 people between 2011 and 2014, mainly thanks to the growth of mobile phones.

5. “With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself”

This was published in Businessweek on 2 August 1968. Car production by Japanese automotive brands in the US hit a record 3.6m in 2013, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association’s US office, up ten per cent from 2012.

Continue reading on the next page for the final five remarks that proved to be less than accurate, including one from Alan Sugar.

Image: Shutterstock

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6. “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”

Irving Fisher, economics professor at Yale University said this in 1929. In the wake of the Autumn Statement and as economists struggle to make predictions, this is one that Professor Fisher would rather have forgotten. He lost much of his personal wealth as well as his standing as an economist in the crash but he did accurately predict the dangers of deflation that occurred during the Great Depression that followed it.

7. “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible”

A Yale University professor to Fred Smith on his proposal for a reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on to found FedEx, building a $34.7bn empire in the process.

8. “Next Christmas the iPod will be kaput”

Alan Sugar said this in February 2005. In fact, just three years later, Apple’s little box of music technology had already sold nearly 175m units worldwide. It went on to change the way in which people buy and listen to music, of course. As far as this prediction goes it’s a case of “Lord Sugar, you’re fired!”

9. “Children just aren’t interested in witches and wizards anymore”

A publishing executive said this in writing to Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling in 1996. With over 400m books sold worldwide, translations into 67 languages and a brand valued at over $15bn, it rather looks like they are.

10. “The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many sceptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive”

Economist Paul Samuelson said this in 1961. In fact, Professor Samuelson went on to become American to win the Nobel Prize for Economics – but probably not for this misfiring prediction.