Now that we're in the world of the future, what next?
This has always been a tough problem for tech giants to answer. Ever since Bill Gates wrote his book The Road Ahead in the mid-1990s, whose first edition basically ignored the Internet, companies have been a bit reluctant to look much further ahead than the next product release, for fear of being seen as stupid in retrospect.
IBM (NYSE:IBM) has sort of institutionalized the silly long view, and with the turn of the year it's out again with another five-year plan it won't follow. This one focuses on computerizing tastes beyond eyes and ears -- like taste and smell.
Lists like this are important as markers, but they're nothing more. They prove that the company putting out the list is at least thinking beyond the end of the quarter, even though we know strategy is largely a seat-of-the-pants thing. Gates didn't see the Internet coming, and no one predicted social networking or the iPhone, for that matter. Change happens when someone does something and people respond to it, not when someone runs stuff up a flagpole and people salute.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is doing something similar in hiring Ray Kurzweil with the title "director of engineering." Kurzweil isn't going to direct Google's engineers. He's going to be given an office to think deep thoughts, to be a "deep thoughts thinker" in the words of The Wizard of Oz. Kurzweil himself says Google has actually been following his thought patterns for over a decade, that he was thinking in terms of self-driving cars and Android phones over a decade ago.
Kurzweil's biggest contribution at this point may be as a nexus for other thinkers. He has taken to collecting the best thoughts of his generation on his blog, and there is nothing wrong with that. Having a trained reporter on the big brain beat is as important as thinking big thoughts yourself.
The point investors need to understand is from Sondheim: "Having just a vision's no solution, everything depends on execution. The art of making art is putting it together." It's unlikely that either Google or IBM will create the Next Big Thing. What matters to you is whether they're alive to whomever does, and whether they take advantage of the opportunities the next big thing presents.
When you put out a list of predictions, or hire a big thinker, you're telling investors that's what you're going to do. But it is, in the end, mainly a PR exercise.
Disclosure: I am long IBM, GOOG. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.