24 July 2015

Never Say Never Part 3

"That'll Never Happen!" - 12 Business Blunders

Welcome to the third instalment in our “It’ll never happen” series. Previously we looked at man’s achievements and scientific milestones that had previously seemed impossible. Now we’re going to look at some of the most short-sighted technology and business blunders of all time. Those things they said would never take off and all those other times when the world of business got things really wrong by failing to see the potential of a new product or invention. 

"That'll Never Happen!" - 12 Business Blunders

So get ready, as we count down the worst business blunders of all time, over a hundred years of incompetence, bad calls, silly oversights and failures to see changes in markets, tastes and emerging technologies. And from some pretty big names too - even Lord Sugar gets dragged into the boardroom on this one!

Only goes to show you should never believe people when they tell you something is impossible. 

1. "Yeeeeee-haww!"

Drilling For Oil, US

"Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy." – Sceptics mocking Edwin L. Drake in 1859.

Edwin L. Drake was one of the original oil men. He was one of, if not the, first to drill for oil in the US during the 19th century. He founded America’s first ever oil refinery and also popularised the use of kerosene for oil lamps. Until he arrived on the scene people were still using whale oil.

In the 21st century oil remains our most precious natural resource. It’s still the primary fuel used in transportation, it lubricates machinery, provides heat and energy, is used in the production of fertilizer that helps feed billions – and it's also the raw material used to create plastic.

It is, in essence, the foundation of our entire civilisation. 

2. A Bad Prediction That’s Off The Hook

Alexander Graham Bell, Telephone

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." – Western Union internal memo, 1876.

When the telephone was invented it was scoffed at. Direct person-to-person voice communication was considered a faddish and unnecessary extravagance. As the chief provider of telegram technology Western Union had good reason to denigrate this new technology. In the end, however, the telegram went the way of the dodo.

Today mobile phones, in particular smartphones, have overshadowed fixed, landline phones. Out of the 7+ billion people on the planet an estimated 4.88 billion currently use smartphones. Can’t exactly say the same for telegrams.

3. Radio “Has No Future”- Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899.

Radio Telescopes

You remember our old friend Lord Kelvin right? We met him during our previous instalment in this series; he being the man who famously told the world that heavier than air flight was impossible. He also didn’t have much faith in the newfound medium of radio.

Yet, even today, with a plethora of different entertainment technologies available, radio remains one of our most popular communication and broadcasting mediums. Not only that, radio serves as the basis for many of said technologies, including television, wireless communication and mobility. In communication terms radio is as important to our civilisation as oil. 

4. "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" - H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

Silent Picture

Ooooh, I dunno, maybe billions of people worldwide? Hey, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie The Artist, but let’s face it – talking pictures are the future kid!

5. The Future Of Five Computers

Five Dell Dimension PCs

You know what else is the future? Computers! Of course not everyone realised this. In 1943 Thomas Watson, the then-chairman of IBM, was quoted as saying "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Not what you’d expect to hear from the head of one the world’s largest computer companies. You need to work on your elementary sales strategy dear Watson!

Five computers? Wow! I count at least five times as many computerised devices within a six meter radius of my desk. 

According to Forrester Research there were over a billion PCs in operation as of 2008 – and that doesn’t include things like phones, digital clocks, calculators…

Meanwhile millions of computers continue to be sold every year.

6. The Microchip… HUH!

“What is it good for?"- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

Zilog Z80 MicroprocessorIBM once again, oh dear! Hard to believe that the company who gave us the PC originally considered the microchip pointless! Course back in the day IBM’s core business consisted of things such as typewriters and similar mechanical devices. Lucky for them they changed their minds about microchips or else it's quite likely the company would no longer exist.

7. Nobody Wants To Buy A Japanese Car

Toyota Rally Car

America went though a massive economic boom following the post-war period – a boom that seemed as though it would go on forever. American heavy industry and technology, like its military, were the dominant force globally. The last thing anybody expected was that, in a matter of decades, Japan would rise from the ashes of the Second World War to challenge their former foes and eventually bring both the American automotive and consumer electronics industries to their knees. 

According to a 1968 edition of Business Week; "with over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market."

To begin with, this might have been true, but the 1973 Oil Embargo changed all that. Suddenly, with oil prices rising dramatically, Japan's smaller, more fuel-efficient models made more sense and, by the 1980s, Japan had begun to threaten Detroit's very existence.

Today the US auto industry is but a shadow of its former self, only spared annihilation by bailouts, and, although now facing stiff competition from neighbouring South Korea, Japan remains one of the car industry’s world leaders. Ouch!

8. Nobody Wants A Home Computer

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977.

Commodore 64 Microcomputer

Poor Ken got the wrong end of the stick on this one. Right on the eve of the microcomputer revolution the company president scoffed at the idea of developing a microcomputer. It wasn’t until fellow micro-sceptics IBM launched their own models that DEC decided to get in on the game, much later than they ought to have. The company was purchased by Compaq in 1998, which in turn was absorbed by HP in 2003.

And speaking of HP…

9. No Jobs For Steve

ET Atari Cartridge

Before starting Apple, Steve Jobs and computer designer Steve Wozniak tried to first sell their products to then-leading companies such as Atari, who rebuffed them bluntly. 

Hewlett Packard, meanwhile, told Jobs, "we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet." (But then neither did Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, to name a few…)

Today Apple remains one of the richest companies on the planet while HP’s computer manufacturing division is on life support. Atari, meanwhile, is a name only children of the 80s now remember, or those who know its reputation for creating the worst video game of all time.

Their ET video game cartrige was so diabolically bad that thousands were buried in the New Mexico desert and the resultant consumer blowback resulted in the '83 Video Game Crash that almost wiped out the fledgling industry.

So, anyone up for a game of Asteroids? What, never heard of it? Oh you kids!

10. World’s Richest Man Says The Internet Is Worthless

Bill Gates / Windows 95

"I see little commercial potential for the Internet for at least 10 years", so said Bill Gates in 1994. Of course not everybody shared his pessimism. That year a man called Jeff Bezos was busy in a garage building up what would, in time, become the world’s biggest e-commerce companies, Amazon.

Today Amazon has evolved far beyond a simple online bookshop and offers its own mobile devices, app infrastructure and cloud computing service that rival Microsoft's own. Didn’t see that one coming, eh Bill?

11. "The iPod Will Be "Kaput" By Next Christmas"

Lord Alan Sugar

Before Lord Sugar was famous for his flexing his sausage-like firing finger in The Apprentice he was head of Amstrad, the trading company he founded in the 60s which would later go on to become a major (though hardly dominant) player in the 1980s microcomputer boom. As technology progressed throughout the 90s, however, Amstrad struggled to keep up and remain relevant. In 2005 Lord Sugar foolishly predicted that the iPod would be " dead, finished, gone, kaput" by the following Christmas. But he was wrong, so wrong, in fact, he should have stood in the mirror and uttered his own catchphrase at his reflection.

12. iPhone Has “No Chance”

Steve Jobs with iPad

Of course Alan Sugar wasn't the only tech mogul to wrongfully predict Apple's downfall. Mere months before the first iPhone was released in 2007 Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, said, "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance."

No chance eh? Apple has sold more than 590 million iPhones between 2007 and 2014. Whereas Ballmer, whose retirement resulted in a rallying of stock prices, will always be remembered as the man who gave us Windows Vista and the equally-cringeworthy viral video of him screaming like a psychopath while sweating to Gloria Estefan.

And of course three years later wunderkind Steve was back with yet another magical, must-have do-dad that - these critics never learn do they? - they all said would be a fad that would never take off. Strange to think we've only had those ubiquitous tablets for only five years - seems like much longer, huh?

"That’s Never Gonna Happen!"

Once again history has shown us that those who said "it'll never happen" were often proven wrong – with hilarious results. Let’s be frank, the odds of hitting a huge jackpot like EuroMillions are stacked against you, but hey, that’s life! Just because something’s unlikely to happen doesn’t mean it’ll never happen. So if you believe you’ll win the lottery some day then go for it!

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