When Mike asked me if I'd write a regular column for him, I had no idea if I'd be able to sustain it. Three column ideas each month, especially given my penchant for writing long? I've always envied newspaper columnists and cartoonists. While I can aperiodically write great columns and come up with pretty damn funny cartoons, my well would run dry mighty quickly if I had to do it every day.
Yet here we are, at Column 100, and I have a backlog of several dozen ideas that ain't gonna go away unless Mike decides he wants me at least weekly. I'm amazed. Column 100, almost the third birthday. (By the way, I'm really looking forward to the cake, chocolate being preferred. And the surprise party.)
Old news about tomorrow
Eamon's recent column on "Alternative Futures" made me realize I had more to say on the subject of prognostication, an appropriate choice for the Centennial column. I've already written a couple of columns about this:
I've been one of those industrial consultants who's been paid quite well to predict the future. It's like picking stocks or handicapping ponies: it's easy to make fun of our truly boneheaded mistakes, but the real business is based on percentages. We don't have to be right all, or even half the time; we only have to be right a lot more often than average to make us (or rather, our clients) money.
I've made great predictions (reasonably accurate ones about DSLR designs and time frames 25 years before the products came to market) and truly lousy ones. The lousy ones are more useful; if we don't learn from our own mistakes, someone else will, and then they'll be better at the game.
In the mid-1980s, almost all knowledgeable consultants predicted the demise of rotating-disk hard drives. The dumb ones said that solid state memory would supplant hard drives in 15 years. The smart said 10–12. I was "smart." Yet, here I am 25 years later, surrounded by gently whirring spindles. Who ordered that?!
Solid-state storage prices are about where I'd have expected them to be, circa $1/GB ('80s dollars), in contrast to hundreds of dollars per megabyte back then. That part's right. What's wrong is that we couldn't imagine that disc manufacturers would be able to drive the production costs on a precise and complicated mechanical device down to 3 cents/GB ('80s cents). Storage costs have dropped faster than RAM costs, year after year, and the end is not in sight.
The X Market
Here's where it gets interesting. Our prediction could've still been right. There is a certain overhead to manufacturing and selling that it's hard to undercut. That's why you see terabyte hard drives for $80 (2009 dollars) but not 10 GB drives for 80 cents. In 1985, you could reasonably predict that people would want several gigabytes of computer storage today. That would be hundreds of times what they had back then, but it was a plausible extension of existing trends and patterns, and it would make a hard disk business unsustainable, no matter how little a GB of disk space cost.
What we didn't predict was how cheap storage (and other computer-ish) improvements would change the market. That's called the "X Market"—it's all about how the product you're introducing changes the marketplace you're selling into rather than how much of the existing market you'll be able to capture.
Had it not been for the X Market, hard drives would be specialty items today. Instead we have the Web, ubiquitous digital cameras (with pixel counts considerably larger than we expected most people would demand), digitized and downloadable music, and home video and motion picture storage. Many consumers feel cramped with 100 GB of storage. Home entertainment systems are available with over 10 TB of storage. A consequence of super-cheap storage, at the same time that it's what makes said storage a viable product.
That's the part of futurism that's hard to predict. It's what keeps life interesting.
Featured Comment by Carl Blesch: "Here's another way I like to look at storage capacity and illustrate the concept of logarithmic growth in a way mortals can conceive. I was able to put all of my saved workplace computer files from 1986 (the dawn of the PC age at my company) through 1997—just over a decade—on a single 650 MB CD-R. My saved files from 1998 and 1999 fit on another CD-R (thanks, Microsoft fatware—especially for the PowerPoints with lavish illustration and animation). Then it took one CD-R per year until I left that job in 2002. Shortly thereafter, I took up digital photography (scanned film at first) and sound recording. The next year, I scanned an image on 120 film at a 16-bit depth and 4000 dpi, and it took the whole CD-R to accommodate that one TIFF. Similarly, a single CD-R held only one hour's worth of audio I recorded in AIFF. So the contrast: one CD for a decade of my life's work, vs. one for a high quality image or hour of high quality sound. Fascinating!"