The Industry Standard‘s Jake Widman circles back to question several technology pundits who a year ago pooh-poohed the iPhone as a poorly designed first dabbling by Apple — or worse, the device that would bring down Apple entirely.
Many did not respond. Those that did had varying responses, from Rob Enderle’s claim that it’s “still [not] a great phone” to others who eat a little crow and say that it’s obviously striking a chord for some buyers. A few actually had purchased iPhones for themselves.
It’s easy to snigger at a pundit’s failure to properly forecast, but let’s be fair: the iPhone could have been a flop…if the mass market’s needs reflected those of tech pundits. (And while the iPhone certainly has captured perhaps more than its share of attention in the tech press, it’s still not a smash hit yet. There are still only a few million iPhones on the market.)
If anything, Widman’s piece underlines one of my own personal bugbears about the technology prognostication business: most of us writing about technology don’t know all that much about the market in general. Sure, I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on trends by dint of writing about the consumer electronics market almost daily for five years, but I’ve been wrong about the future as much or more than I’ve been right. (Bluetooth headphones are going to be the hit accessory of 2006, everyone!)
I’m not trying to hide incompetence behind flippancy, either. I really do try to think this stuff through and offer my best guess. (“I predict the far flung future of…2010!”) But most technology writers have a journalism background, not a hands-on technical one, and even those of us who came out of the IT or engineering world (like I did, nominally, with a couple of years of mediocre web development and sysadminning) rarely have a good grasp of design, advertising, or market forces that affect the success of a product as much or more than technical specifications.
The obvious point of reference is the iPod. When I took over Gizmodo there was still a very active debate about whether or not the iPod would succeed in the MP3 player market. A couple of years later it was clear from sales numbers alone that Apple had dominated the market, but that didn’t stop vocal internet geeks from decrying not just the iPod as it applied to their needs (fair) but as it applied to the millions of others who seemed to like their iPods just fine (unfair). Even Microsoft spent millions launching platform after platform to try to fight off the iPod well after it was clear the market had spoken.
Anyway, what was I talking about? Someone just handed me a melon.
I think I remember my point: holding pundits who write incendiary articles to the fire is a good thing. Keeps them honest. But even when the pundits are right, it’s mostly all a wild guess. I don’t mean to undermine my entire livelihood here, but I don’t think it’s a big secret that most of us in this industry are just regular technology fans with no special insight or skills beyond the luxury of a job that lets us pay slightly closer attention to our subject matter than our readers.
I hope that doesn’t sound really pessimistic. And if fact there are many really smart writers out there doing good work. (Mike Masnick, Tim Wu (who didn’t like the iPhone!), Loyd Case and Jason Cross, much of the Ars gang, etc.; few I would saddle with the term “pundit”.) I probably should have just called Dvorak a toolish prevaricator and been on my way. In fact this whole article is a mess, but when you’re a tech pundit, you’ve got to publish whatever you end up writing, even if it’s completely ludicrous, or else people might stop reading.