Top 25 Tech Quotes

These 25 notable quotes in tech history have become legendary sound bites.

Harry McCracken, PC World November 2009

It’s not love, war, or baseball. But over the years some memorable things have been said about technology. Some have been memorably eloquent; others are unforgettably shortsighted, wrongheaded, or just plain weird. Let’s celebrate them, shall we?

A few ground rules for the list that follows: I considered only statements attributable to a specific individual, which ruled out most ad slogans (“Think Different”) and many durable Internet memes (“You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”). I did, however, include individuals who happened to be fictional, or canine, or inanimate. I also let a couple of quotes slip in that are not strictly speaking about technology, though neither would exist without it–one from 1876, and one from earlier this decade. Sue me.

It’s hard to rank quotes by how notable they are. So I faked it by listing them using an imprecise, unscientific factor I call Googleosity: the number of results Google reports that reference (or riff upon) each quote. (You may quibble with the queries I performed to determine Googleosity, but I tried my best.) Googleosity tends to reward quotes that are not only famous but fun–they’re the ones that people like to allude to, to parody, and to generally weave into blog posts and other onlne conversation.

We’ll start with the quote with the lowest Googleosity factor, and work our way up from there.

25. Mike Doonesbury’s Newton-like PDA:

Googleosity: 3,970

Quote type: Satire as product evaluation.

Circumstances of origin: In Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip for August 27th, 1993, as Mike tries out his new PDA’s handwriting recognition; it’s what the PDA thinks he meant when he scribbles “Catching on?”

Why it’s notable: Trudeau’s sequence tweaking Apple’s high-profile Newton attracted attention at the time–the PDA had debuted earlier that month–and it still comes up frequently in discussions of the product. Some Newton fans seemed to blame the strips for contributing to the product’s ultimate failure, although the platform hung on until 1998. The Newton engineers, however, took the jibe gracefully, tacking the strip up on the wall as inspiration and building a version of the “Egg Freckles?” panel into a later Newton model as an Easter Egg.

24. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple:

Googleosity: 5,710

Quote type: Terse goading.

Circumstances of origin: The statement was one of three ‘Saying from Chairman Jobs” that Jobs shared at a January, 1983 Macintosh team retreat in Carmel, California. The groundbreaking computer was behind schedule and wouldn’t end up shipping for another year. (The other two sayings: “It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy” and “Mac in a book by 1986.”)

Why it’s notable: Jobs was right–the technological innovations that matter most are the ones that appear in products that consumers can actually buy. Here’s a good blog post on how the “Real artists ship” ethos impacts Apple to this day.

23. Linus Torvalds, father of Linux:

Googleosity: 12,500

Quote type: Momentous moment.

Circumstances of origin: Torvalds posted to the comp.os.minix newgroup to seek input on Linux, which he had just begun developing.

Why it’s notable: In an industry notorious for overhype–especially for new operating systems–this modest little message is one of the most hype-free major product announcements ever. Torvalds’ “hobby” went on to change the world, in part by inspiring such other worthy open-source projects as Mozilla’s Firefox.

22. Scott McNealy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems:

Googleosity: 35,700

Quote type: Inconvenient half-truth.

Circumstances of origin: Before the media at the launch of Sun’s Jini technology, January 26th 1999.

Why it’s notable: Former Sun CEO McNealy may be the most irritable man in technology. (He once told me I’d asked him the dumbest question he’d ever heard.) His dismissal of a question about the privacy implications of the company’s Jini platform for distributed services is shocking–in part because CEOs touting new technology usually don’t talk like that, and in part because his blanket statement is closer to being true than most of us would care to admit.

21. Ken Olsen, founder of legendary minicomputer company DEC:

Googleosity: 49,200

Quote type: Boneheaded miscalculation.

Circumstances of origin: A talk to the World Future Society in Boston, presumably before an audience full of folks who disagreed with him.

Why it’s notable: Unlike the similarly shortsighted “I think there is a worldwide market for maybe five computers,” Olsen’s seemingly blithe dismissal of the home PC is definitively real. But Olsen and his defenders say he was quoted out of context–that he was talking about all-powerful computers that would control lights, temperature, entertainment, and meals. I admire the guy, so I’ll cut him some slack. Is it a coincidence, though, that when DEC attempted to enter the home computer market five years later, it was with a famously miserable machine?

20. Bill Gates, cofounder of Micro-Soft:

Googleosity: 51,900

Quote type: Snippy accusation.

Circumstances of origin: In an “open letter” dated February 3rd, 1976 and published in several computer magazines of the day.

Why it’s notable: Gates, a twenty-year-old Harvard dropout who’d started a company named “Micro-Soft” with buddy Paul Allen less than a year before, was all fired up over widespread piracy of the company’s first product, BASIC for the Altair microcomputer. The letter is Gates before he got slicked up and toned down for public consumption, although it does end on a positive (if wildly ambitious) note: “nothing would please me more than to be able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.”

19. Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computer, speaking of Apple:

Googleosity: 53,300

Quote type: Boneheaded miscalculation.

Circumstances of origin: During a speech Dell made before thousands of attendees at Gartner’s Symposium and ITexpo97 on October 6th, 1997.

Why it’s notable: Apple was in such dire straits in the late 1990s that you can make the case that the mail-order magnate’s recommendation that the company be shuttered was the most rational analysis of the situation. Or at least that it was merely a more extreme expression of the widespread expectation that Apple would be bought out by a mighty tech company such as Sony or Sun. Virtually nobody would have believed you if you’d laid out a scenario in which it would become the most influential company in entertainment distribution, wireless phones, and technology retailing–and achieve a market cap worth six times that of Dell.

18. HAL, a spaceship computer:

Googleosity: 112,000

Quote type: Fictional computer message.

Circumstances of origin: In Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey; HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) is refusing the request by astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) to open the pod bay doors.

Why it’s notable: HAL’s sentient act of disobedience is one of the most memorable moments in one of the most memorable movies ever. As I’ve written before, it’s also a prescient foreshadowing of the relationship real people would have with real computers starting just a few years after 2001’s release. Life in 2009 is no space odyssey, but every frustrated computer user can identify with Dave–and every PC that refuses to behave has a little bit of HAL in it.

17. “Steven,” a character in ads for Dell Computer:

Googleosity: 154,000

Quote type: Inexplicably popular catchphrase.

Circumstances of origin: In direct-marketing TV ads for the mail-order PC giant from 2000-2003.

Why it’s notable: Did Dell’s “Steven” commercials really air earlier in this decade? The spots, starring actor Ben Curtis as a PC-promoting slacker kid, feel like period pieces from an era when human beings were more easily amused. Yet Steven’s tagline is lodged in the great American consciousness, and it still comes up incessantly, sometimes in the darndest contexts. Dell, I suspect, would like to move on–especially given Curtis’s legal woes in 2003.

16. Clippy, a talking paperclip in Microsoft Office:

Googleosity: 166,000

Quote type: Unhelpful help.

Circumstances of origin: Clippy (more formally known as Clippit) and the other Office Assistants debuted in Office 97. They were eventually deemphasized in Office XP, but only eradicated for good as of Office 2007 for Windows and Office 2008 for the Mac.

Why it’s notable: Clippy is the most reviled of multiple Microsoft attempts to popularize anthropomorphic helpers, and “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” is his most infamous intrusion. He’s inspired countless parodies (including at least a couple from Microsoft itself and one in software form). Actually, just looking at the little punk makes my blood boil a little.

15. Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction legend:

Googleosity: 242,000

Quote type: Insightful epigram.

Circumstances of origin: In the 1973 edition of Clarke’s book Profiles of the Future, codified as Clarke’s Third Law.

Why it’s notable: Because it gives everybody who creates tech products such a lofty, worthwhile goal to shoot for. For all the remarkable technologies in our lives, how many of them are truly “sufficiently advanced” by Clarke’s measure?

14. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft:

Googleosity: 219,000

Quote type: Single-minded war chant.

Circumstances of origin: Ballmer did his thing at a developers’ conference in 2000, a few days after performing his equally unforgettable Monkey Boy dance at a celebration of Microsoft’s 25th anniversary.

Why it’s notable: Well, because it’s so damn strange (and perversely endearing), for one thing. You wanna look away, but you can’t. But it also neatly sums up a truth about Microsoft: Say what you will about the company, a meaningful chunk of the company’s success has always stemmed from the skill with which it caters to developers, developers, developers, developers….

13. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, although he says he never uttered these words:

Googleosity: 267,000

Quote type: Apparently apocryphal boneheaded miscalculation.

Circumstances of its origin: Gates is usually said to have made the claim that the IBM PC’s 640K of RAM was sufficient at a 1981 microcomputer trade show, although reports of the now-famous lapse in foresight only seem to date back to the early 1990s. Gates, however steadfastly denies that he ever thought or said any such thing:

“I’ve said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that. No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time.”

Until someone comes up with evidence—any evidence at all–that Gates said it, I consider him innocent. Although, as this excellent blog post points out, Gates has twice said that he was surprised by how quickly 640K proved to be an inadequate amount 0f memory.

Why it’s notable: The quote may be fabricated, but it’s also referenced incessantly–sometimes to make points about tech, and sometimes just to mock Bill Gates. And even if it’s fictitious, it contains a greater truth–the computer industry is constantly misjudging the shelf lives of the technologies it sells us.

12. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, to Pepsi CEO John Sculley:

Googleosity: 300,000

Quote type: Edgy job interview question.

Circumstances of origin: Jobs posed the query to Sculley while attempting to convince him to leave Pepsi and join Apple as CEO. (The Apple founder came to regret the hire, of course: Sculley ultimately ousted him.)

Why it’s notable: Because it’s such a classic Steve Jobsism–brusque, inspiring, ambitious, pushy, and ultimately convincing.

11. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple:

Googleosity: 779,000

Quote type: Kabuki-like catchphrase used by Jobs before final announcement–often a biggie–at Macword Expo keynotes and other product rollouts.

Circumstances of origin: I’m not sure when he started using it–I’d like to think that footage will surface of him unveiling, say, the Apple III as “one more thing”–but it was already an in-joke by the time of the 1998 event that introduced the first iMac.

Why it’s notable: It’s synonymous with Jobs’ peerless sense of showmanship. If there was ever a time when “One more thing” startled anyone, it ended long ago–the bigger surprise was when he didn’t use it before announcing the first iPhone in 2007. And his most recent use of the phrase at September’s music event prompted a surprisingly blasé response.

10. IBM President Thomas J. Watson–in theory, at least:

Quote type: Apparently apocryphal boneheaded miscalculation.

Googleosity: 951,000

Circumstances of origin: Very sketchy, but he’s most often said to have said it in 1943. But there’s no real evidence he ever said any such thing: The conventional wisdom is that the “quote” mangles remarks Watson made at IBM’s annual meeting a decade later, when he said that the company expected to sell eight examples of one specific computer on one particular sales trip. Then again, maybe Watson is being blamed for something vaguely similar said by a British mathematician around 1951. In any event, the data-processing magnate passed away in 1956, after IBM had sold a lot more than five computers but before he could defend himself.

Why it’s notable: People love to chortle at examples of alleged professionals who don’t know what the heck they’re talking about–so much so that it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the quotes are legit or not. (The Watson one was popularized by The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, an entire book of such stuff.)

9. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone:

Googleosity: 1,120.000

Quote type: momentous moment.

Circumstances of origin: During a scientific experiment at his laboratory in Boston on March 10th, 1876. Bell, of course, called out to his assistant Thomas Watson–no relation to the one we just discussed–and thereby discovered that his telephone was working.

Why it’s notable: It’s one of the greatest moments in gizmo history. (Side note: Nobody remembers precisely what the first e-mail said, but here’s the first tweet.)

8. Alan Kay, computer visionary:

Googleosity: 1,300,000

Quote type: Insightful epigram

Circumstances of origin: Kay said it at a 1971 meeting at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where much of the future of technology was invented in the 1970s–including the graphical interface, Ethernet, and the laser printer.

Why it’s notable: It’s true, ennobling, and catchy, and Kay–whose Dynabook portable computer concept has been inspiring builders of mobile devices for forty years–has lived the dream. Bonus points: A slight variation on the quote is frequently misattributed to Abraham Lincoln. Wwhich is not something you can say about “Egg freckles?” or “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!”

7. Senator Ted Stevens, June 28th, 2006:

Quote type: Political blather.

Googleosity: 1,430,000

Circumstances of origin: During comments on June 28th, 2006 concerning net neutrality.

Why it’s notable: It’s possible that former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will be best remembered for his forty years in the Senate and the ethical breaches he was convicted of (in a trial that was voided after he lost his 2008 bid for reelection). But it’s at least as likely that he’ll earn his place in history as the guy who said this stuff:

“Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got…an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday Tuesday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.

“…They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.”

6. George W. Bush, president of the United States:

Googleosity: 1,480,000*

Quote type: Political blather.

Circumstances of origin: During a TV interview with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo on October 22nd, 2006.

Why it’s notable: The leader of the free world was famously tongue-tied–and hey, he told Bartiromo he used “the Google” only “occasionally.” Whether he misspoke or didn’t know what the world’s favorite search engine was called, his fumble has been intentionally repeated countless times by others in the three years since he made it.

*This number probably overstates this quote’s Googleosity–sadly, the Google makes it hard to form a query that accurately captures references to Bush’s gaffe.

5. Unnamed dog sitting at a computer:

Googleosity: 2,000,000

Quote type: Insightful, amusing epigram

Circumstances of origin: In a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner in the July 5th, 1993 issue

Why it’s notable: Steiner’s cartoon–whose caption is endlessly riffed upon to this day, often by folks who probably can’t identify where it came from–neatly summarizes the democratizing effect of the Internet. In retrospect, it’s amazing that it did it sixteen years ago–before Netscape, before Yahoo, and before many Americans had ever logged onto the Net at all.

4. Elwood Edwards, husband of an early AOL employee:

Googleosity: 2,040,000

Quote type: Time-honored WAV file.

Circumstances of origin: Recorded in 1989 on a cassette recorder; debuted with AOL 1.0 in 1989

Why it’s notable: Edwards, a broadcast-industry veteran and husband of an early America Online employee, is the voice behind the three words that have been heard billions of times by millions of people over the past twenty years. (He was also responsible for the less iconic “Welcome,” and “Goodbye,” and “File’s done!”) “You’ve got mail!” is as emblematic of AOL as the surging sea of demo disks it once pelted us with; it was made into a movie and continues to serve as the inspiration for maybe half of all headlines relating to AOL. In short, it’s hard to imagine AOL without it.

3. George W. Bush, president of the United States:

Googleosity: 2,400,000

Quote type: Political blather.

Circumstances of origin: Uttered by the 43rd president during a presidential debate on October 8th, 2004. He also referred to “the Internets” during a debate on October 17th, 2000 and in an interview on May 2nd, 2007.

Why it’s notable: It may have been a simple slip of the tongue–okay, one made repeatedly over the course of years–but “the Internets” and its variant, “the Interwebs,” have transcended simple memehood. On much of the Internet, the terms are used in discussion of Internet-related matters that isn’t otherwise particularly wacky. I wonder if the former president knows he gave the Net this little gift, and if so, what he makes of it?

2. Al Gore, vice president of the United States:

Googleosity: 3,490,000

Quote type: Political blather.

Circumstances of origin: During an interview on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, March 9th, 1999.

Why it’s notable: Want to take a convenient cheap shot at the 45th vice president of the United States ? Join the untold legions who have accused him of having claimed to be the inventor of the Internet. Hoax-debunking site says that Gore “did not claim he ‘invented’ the Internet, nor did he say anything that could reasonably be interpreted that way.” Well, maybe–taken literally, Gore’s words do seem to say that he was a co-creator of the Internet, at least. (Originally known as ARPANET, the Internet went online in October 1969, when Gore was a recent college graduate.) As a Congressman and Senator, the famously tech-savvy Gore did play a major role in communications policy; if he had said he’d been instrumental in “developing” or “expanding” the Net rather than “creating” it, his statement would have unassailable–and it wouldn’t be in this article.

1. An intergalactic villain in Zero Wing, a 1991 videogame:

Quote type: Botched translation.

Googleosity: 11,800,000

Circumstances of origin: It’s a piece of threatening dialog in the European edition of a Japanese game for Sega’s Mega Drive (aka Genesis) game console. Wikipedia helpfully provides the following improved translation: “With the help of the Federation Government forces, CATS has taken all of your bases.”

Why it’s notable: Beginning in early 2001, it became the most pervasive Internet meme this side of Rickrolling. It continues to flourish, spawning thousands of variants in discussions of everything from politics to public utilities to sports. Most of the people who riff on it can presumably tell you it originated in a game. But the percentage who can tell you which game–let alone who have actually seen it–is probably minuscule.

Any nominations of notable quotes I failed to include here–including ones that deserve to be better known than they are?

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