The Perils of the Prediction Game

Most of my friends at some point have heard me say, “In hindsight we are either geniuses or idiots.” It’s particularly true for someone like me who makes a living writing and analyzing things.

In a column for Canada’s National Post, Dan Gardner eviscerates the global punditocracy, which he points out gets it wrong most of the time. Gardner, author of Future Babble, points to a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, which makes no mention of the failed/wrong predictions.

In the same issue, Foreign Policy features an essay on entrepreneurship and education in China, India and the U.S., raising the specter of the U.S. falling behind. In my lifetime, I’ve heard similar arguments being made about the U.S. falling behind Japan and South East Asia. I have no idea whether the assertions made in the article will come true or not,  but I do know one thing: In time, the author will be proven right or wrong. Such are the perils of the game of predictions.

It is not just predictions; sometimes analysis and its value changes depending on when you look. For example, in 2005, we said Myspace was a good acquisition by News Corp (s nws). It was a way to go-up against MTV (s via). At $580 million, it was a bargain. A $900 million-plus advertising deal with Google (s GOOG) made the acquisition much more affordable. But somewhere along the way, Facebook happened. Myspace became an executive quagmire, and the whole thing is falling apart. The pendulum has swung between two extremes.

Predictions are particularly hard in the technology industry, as it morphs and changes rapidly. The best you can do is identify trends or macro themes correctly. Last year, at an event, I said Comcast (s cmsa), Facebook, Apple (s aapl), Twitter and Amazon (s amzn) would make serious headlines in 2010. And they did — all year long! (Those safe predictions got me a rap on the fingers from some of my readers.)

Looking into 2011, I don’t really have many predictions. What I have are some reasonable guesses, and since I’ve made these in public forums, I’m happy to repeat them. For instance, at a recent Mobile Monday event, my 2011 prediction was that Samsung was going to become the dominant Android-based (s goog) device maker and it will come at the expense of early Android leaders — Motorola (s mot) and HTC.

Samsung has already shown strong sales for its Galaxy S series of Android-based smartphones (over 9.3 million), tablets (one million) and more recently, it announced a new Android-based music player. It also owns the entire component food chain –processors, memory, flash storage and screens — which gives it a key advantage, as most mobile phone makers are grappling with component capacity constraints. In 2011, the battle will really come down between Samsung and Apple.

I shared some of my thoughts with folks from Nieman Journalism Lab, and here are my predictions for the media industry:

When I sit down and think about the future of media, I see two core problems with the media business at large. Most media entities tend to define themselves by features — magazines, newspapers, television and radio — while the audience aka the customers see media entities as “information” resources.

I think we are going to see the continuous destruction of value in the media industry because folks refuse to look beyond what is obvious and comfortable. That is precisely why we are going to see [the] media industry lose [its] shirt on ill-conceived mobile applications, mostly because publishers want to replicate what they know best — an ambiguous, non-measurable advertising paradigm — on digital devices.

Similarly, the media entities will all come to a realization that chasing page views is a zero-sum game, and they are playing with a losing hand against zero-cost pageview-generation megafarms like Facebook, especially at a time when the modes of content consumption and discovery are changing. Content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content are commoditizing the value of banner ads and page views.

  1. Bloomberg will continue its march and become one of the most powerful media entities in the U.S. It has television assets to go along with web, print offerings (Bloomberg BusinessWeek), and data terminals — making it a company in the business of selling information.
  2. We will see continued implosion of large-scale media barring a handful of national/transnational brands such as The New York Times (s nyt) and The Wall Street Journal. 2011 is going to be particularly hard for companies that have cut back on their core competency journalism.
  3. MSNBC (s ge) [will] make a serious bid to acquire The Huffington Post.
  4. The Discovery Group (s disca) will become one of the major media groups. The company has done a good job of merging its cable television and web businesses with a thriving e-commerce business, making it less reliant on pure advertising revenues. In 2011, Oprah joins the Discovery family. What’s good for Oprah is good for Om!

The media industry’s mobile app problems are already coming home to roost. Women’s Wear Daily notes:

Many magazines that are available on the iPad, such as Esquire, People (s twx) and The New Yorker, have not posted their digital single-issue sales to the ABC. But Vanity Fair sold 8,700 digital editions of its November issue, down from its average of about 10,500 for the August, September and October issues. Glamour sold 4,301 digital editions in September, but sales dropped 20 percent in October and then another 20 percent, to 2,775, in November. GQ’s November edition sold 11,000 times, which was its worst performance since April (when the iPad was released) and represents a slight decline from its average digital sales of 13,000 between May and October.

After Wired’s enormous debut month, the magazine averaged 31,000 digital sales between July and September, but even that fell in October and November, with sales coming in at 22,000 and 23,000, respectively. (For comparison, the magazine sold 130,000 total print editions for October and November.)

Here are predictions from some of our channels:

Image courtesy Flickr user islandguy