Over time the beeper I carried grew in size and functionality, but I still could not use it to make a call. For that I had a cell phone, and for organizational data I maintained a palm pilot. Overall, I had three devices serving three entirely different functions that made my belt something Batman would have been impressed with, but overall, communication at the workplace leaned on the same two work horses, email and the desk phone. Yet, something was shifting and shifting seismically. There was a steady convergence of technologies… the pager, cell phone and pocket PC were all gradually showing a greater overlap of functionality and consequently merging into one device. At the office, the desk phone was increasing in complexity and functionality, interacting with the PC more. On the PC, instant messaging started to probe voice and the computer was swiftly becoming a more versatile communication tool.
The most intriguing of shifts however, was not occurring on the corporate front. It was occurring with everyday consumers and it involved the gradual fading of tangible products and services into software. The Digital Revolution had laid down its roots and was now truly branching out into the world and perched amongst the limbs poised to take flight was mobility.
An example of this is the Banking industry. Most of us “older” folk recall a time when banking was a tedious process. It involved using up your lunch hour to trudge to a bank, stand in line and wait for the next available teller, whom always seemed to need to take a lunch break just as you attained access to the front of the queue. techies, being the torch-bearers of efficiency (or promoters of procrastination), didn’t particularly enjoy the prospects of banking, but it was an unfortunate necessity to sustain our accrued gaming expenses. When the banking industry adopted online services that essentially replaced the physical teller with a digital one, the technically inclined were the first to adopt it. The basic tasks of tellers became something that we all could now do on our own time from wherever an ATM was accessible and we could pay our bills from the comfort of our own homes without needing stamps, checkbooks or envelopes. We were essentially assuming responsibilities that Banks once paid tellers to do, and we were more than happy to assume those responsibilities because it made our lives easier.
The benefits of turning a physical service or product into a digital counterpart were astounding, not least of which was offloading the costs and responsibilities of infrastructure, services, employees and maintenance to the end-user, which allowed a company to focus on its core business and increase it’s bottom-line. The Banking industry realized this. The Telephony industry executed this very same maneuver long ago when it offloaded the tasks of the switchboard operator to the end-user, getting us to dial the number to reach our intended party as opposed to having a physical operator do it for us. This allowed telephone companies to focus their energies on making their core product better.
As one might imagine, it did not take long before other industries caught on and an internet-explosion occurred. Retail, music, movies, books… everything was getting digitized and becoming accessible online to the general masses. While this was occurring, computers accessing the net were becoming as prolific within homes as the TV and these online services were reaching larger and larger audiences. This forced conventional brick-and-mortar companies to re-think how they did business.
Companies like Apple, Amazon and Netflix had one thing in common; they turned a product or service and digitized it, making it more readily accessible, easily consumable and all for a fraction of the cost of getting that same product or service from a conventional storefront. The convenience was hard to ignore. In fact, people that chose to ignore this shift were simply left behind or forced to adapt to a briskly changing environment at their expense. Just envision all of those amateur photographers clinging hopelessly to film as digital photography engulfed the industry and made film development relics of ages past. Companies that failed to move or adapt swiftly enough simply ceased to exist, just ask the thousands of record shops throttled out of business by iTunes and BlockBuster locations made irrelevant by Netflix.
The convenience and cost effectiveness of shopping online was readily apparent, but what was also apparent was the necessity to be in front of a computer with network connectivity to make it happen. People generally have the tendency to move, even in their own homes (at least in most parts of America), which made online retailing a challenge as all of these online services were predicated on customers remaining stationary in their cyber storefront. Yet, how practical was that? The older generation didn’t really understand technology at all but they were stationary and the younger generation was technically competent but constantly on the move. Living in NYC, there was nothing more socially dysfunctional then to turn down a night on the town to handle some online shopping, so how could online business reach moving customers? If there was only a way to package those digital services in such a way that they were always accessible no matter where we were, it would change the fabric of how we functioned.