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Tech CEOs say the darndest things

With his comment that tablets will soon die out, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins is just the latest to offer a bold prediction about the future of technology. Will he be the latest to blow it?

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins
BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins
Screenshot by CNET

There they go again. Seems being the CEO at a technology company invariably involves hitting the stump and doing what George H.W. Bush (father, not the son) once famously called "the vision thing." So it was that earlier today Blackberry CEO Thorstein Heins made headlines when he predicted that the clock is ticking on tablet computers.

"In five years I don't think there'll be a reason to have a tablet anymore," he told Bloomberg.

Bold words, especially given the big, bold expectations for tablets sounded by the research houses. For example, Gartner said in April that it expects tablet sales to exceed PC sales in 2015 for the first time. And while IDC predicts PCs will still outsell tablets that year, it estimates consumers will buy 281 million tablets. Not that the "experts" haven't blown it before. But Heins' pronouncement has been fodder for a fair amount of Internet chatter given BlackBerry's recent track record spotting trends in smartphone tastes.

Even if Heins does blow this one, let's not be overly harsh. Most tech predictions are part informed-guesswork and part sheer crapshoot. Besides, he'll have some esteemed company. To wit:

  • Digital Equipment's legendary founder, Ken Olsen, one of the titans in the history of technology, dismissed personal computers in 1977 as "toys" that he thought would be relegated to playing video games. Olsen said he saw "no reason for any individual to have a personal computer." In fairness to Olsen, we must note that he subsequently claimed the quote had been taken out of context and that the reference was to the future role some predicted computers would have in the home, such as in temperature control. (One wonders what Olsen might have thought about Nest.)
  • "Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet's continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse." So said Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, in 1995. A couple of years later, he ate his words -- literally.
  • Michael Dell offers Apple, then struggling for survival, memorable advice in 1997: "What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders," Dell said before a crowd of several thousand IT executives.
  • In 2004, Bill Gates told attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos that spam would be solved within two years.
  • He did make a multibillion-dollar score selling a losing dot-com company with a debatable future to Yahoo, but that didn't turn Mark Cuban into a latter-day Nostradamus. In 2006, he said that "only a moron would buy YouTube." Uh huh.
  • Microsoft's Steve Ballmer had this to say in 2007 about a certain gadget: "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance."