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  Redifon's Office Revolution April 1980

  Office Revolution Press Reports

  Redifon Computers announces the
    world's most advanced information
    handling system

  SCAN Summer 1980

  Redifon News July 1980

  'TV paves way for Information
    Brokerage' May 1980

  'All Plugged In' Trevor French
    April 28 1983

The Aldrich Archive began by accident- an attempt to answer a question, ‘Grandpa, did you invent internet shopping?’ During the course of researching on-line shopping the Archive evolved into a record of my years working at Redifon/Rediffusion/ROCC [same company, two name changes]. I had forgotten just about everything partly because I have a poor memory and partly because of other issues. It has been a cathartic and happy experience re-assembling old memories and finding so many old friends.

A simple bar and buttons structure for the web-site seemed right at the time. No great interest was expected. We found out later that this structure was not satisfactory for academics who preferred a searchable structure, the more so when I frankly confessed that I do not know what is in the non-digitised Archive. I had only used the material that I found to illustrate the stories I was telling. The rest of the material was gradually aggregated into what became the Archive. I did not look for other stories to tell. We are planning to wait to the end of the Phase 2 Living History, around 2013, to re-scan the entire Archive to make it searchable. It will remain open to the public.

In the meantime the digitised Archive was creating unexpected interest from US patent lawyers looking for ‘prior art’ when defending intellectual property and patent claims. Apparently a number of online shopping and shopping cart patents were filed and granted in the US from the 1990s onwards. Both the Gateshead SIS/Tesco[1984] and Bradford Centrepoint/Wm Morrison[1986] supermarket systems had many innovative features including dynamic shopping list processing, called Online Shopping Basket by its inventor John Phelan who designed both applications systems. It was re-named by others Online Shopping Cart in the 1990s. None of the US patents mention Michael Aldrich, John Phelan or Redifon/Rediffusion/ROCC. The US patents are still enforced. We never filed patents on these systems and concepts so we have no interest in the suits.

The other focus was in the area of who invented what and when, particularly online shopping, e-commerce and e-business. My research indicated, to my surprise, that I invented what I called teleshopping. It was renamed online shopping in the 1990s, and the words e-commerce and e-business also came into use during the 1990s. The term e-business is usually credited to IBM’s marketing people. While we would not claim to have used these 1990s terms in 1980, we can reasonably claim to have offered in 1980 what subsequently was named online shopping, e-commerce and e-business 10 years or more later, and we have the evidence to prove it. It is in the Archive.

Between the late summer of 1979, when a prototype of the online shopping system had been created, and April 1980 Redifon worked very hard to develop and productionise the system, adding also machine-readable hand-print processing and voice response to a basic system already capable of simultaneous transaction processing, data processing, distributed processing and high performance keyboard data entry and scanning. The hardware capabilities of connecting TVs to computers and networking everything were eye-catching. But the proposed application usage was probably even more radical.

Remember this was April 1980; President Reagan had been in office for 3 months; it was the time of HiFi sound, LPs and audio cassettes, before the VCR, before the IBM PC, before Microsoft MS-DOS, 11 years before the commercial internet/www and effectively 20 years before the internet came of age. Our basic application concept was that organizations should immediately connect their customers and suppliers online and conduct business electronically using our system. Up to that point organisations had used computers for internal processes ‘within’ the organisation. The new idea was about connecting the outside world, the ‘without’, to the corporate systems and doing business digitally. This was probably the beginning of modern e-commerce and e-business. Our system delivery lead-time was 90 days, all our staff had been trained, and the hardware, software and telecoms demonstrably worked. Applications could be designed and built quickly and inexpensively. We modestly called this announcement ‘Redifon’s Office Revolution.’ We didn’t have an advertising budget – we just used a huge amount of free editorials. We sold many projects for many years. They were very profitable.

A Press Conference was held in a London Hotel in March 1980 prior to the marketing release in April. The Press zeroed in on the TVs. This was new, physical and familiar. The coverage we received was large but it was confused, partial and mostly without any real understanding of what we were talking about. Reporters wrote about the bits they understood. They were technology reporters and understood little about the business implications of the proposed applications. In any case software was little understood in those days. Communicating with the media, with a few notable exceptions, was challenging throughout the 1980s.

There was one exception with the reporting of the Press Conference. ‘TV paves the way for Information Brokerage’, Minicomputer News, May 1980, London, p12 actually reported what was announced and said in some depth, without spin or editorial. In that report is a fair description written by a third party of what we now call online shopping, e-commerce and e-business and a conceptual business model example, alas minus the brilliant auction, which could be eBay 14 years later. The report also refers to ‘human interface technology’ a subject that became more obvious over time. Put simply, if the human interface to computers was standardised, rationalised and simplified more people would be able to use them for more things. The exemplar was Mrs Snowball, a 72 year old grandmother using a TV remote, who never saw a computer and yet became the first online home shopper. [The parallels with Apple Inc iPhone usage 25 years later are obvious.] The story of the ‘Office Revolution’ was also published in ‘SCAN’ Magazine Summer 1980 London. In July 1980 a further Press Conference was held to release a ‘compact’ model of the computer system, and also to repeat the messages that had not been properly understood in April. This was also reported in the next edition of ‘Redifon News’. It was after the July Press Conference that the ‘Financial Times’ led its report with the now famous ‘If Mike Aldrich is to be believed…’ All the available surviving Press Cuttings can be seen in the Press Cuttings Section of the Archive – viz. March, April, May, June and July etc 1980. It is amusing to read this material in the 30th anniversary year and remember the very difficult task of educating a very sceptical world. [Another piece of straightforward reporting was found regarding home computing: ’All Plugged In’ by Trevor French in the Crawley Observer, April 28 1983].

We sold these concepts throughout the 1980s producing innovative and useful systems. We aimed at market leaders, hence the big company case studies. We knew the rest would eventually follow. All our systems in terms of hardware and system software were basically the same. They could perform all the functions simultaneously. However, they were marketed and sold in different market sectors at different prices. No-one was ready for joined up digital business in the 1980s.

Some of the case studies have survived. They were all commissioned by the company, written by freelance technology journalists and the clients had final approval of the contents. They are contemporaneous accounts of innovative systems as told by the users. Over time further case studies will hopefully emerge. These will help research and fuel debate. The work is also helped by international researchers shining lights on to new areas. We realise that these researchers need access to a full searchable website. The only interim solutions are for us to monitor the evolving debate and put up useful material if we can find it or to visit the Aldrich Library in Brighton, England where the physical hard-copy Archive resides. With the re-scan, the problem will disappear. We will probably then take the opportunity to improve the overall structure of the Archive.

The interest in online shopping etc should not overshadow the company’s other work, particularly in data capture, UK Local Government Enterprise systems, Networks and in Eastern Europe. In time, that work will also get its 15 minutes of fame. The first objective of the Archive is to create a good historical record that can be used by future generations interested in small companies and IT at the end of the 20th Century. I am hopeful that we will achieve this objective.

The Living History phase is progressing well and new material will be added continuously to the Reference Material sections usually under ‘ROCC & Co People’ and ‘Client/User People.’ Other material is being added elsewhere as it becomes available. We are also planning follow-on projects.



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© Michael Aldrich 2011