Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Vision Thing - It's Not About Selling Content like Hamburgers

Franchised computer stores spread rapidly in the late '70's
"The Dawn of a New Age, Second Encounter” was the promoted theme of the Second Annual Personal Computer Show held in Chicago, around this time, thirty-two years ago. Your humble blogger was reminded of that show as I wrote about the Inbound Marketing Summit recently. The online/smart phone media business keeps reminding me of the PC business in its early days. But I was surprised to find that my memory was WRONG in key respects. And I realized I owed a personal debt.

Selling Computers like Hamburgers” was the editor’s title for the my account of that 1978 show. I was writing for a lowly rag but my writing caught the attention a recruiter and led to my first corporate job. The article’s title alluded to the franchise business model of Byte Industries, a young computer store dealer coop which had just been purchased and re-launched as a franchiser by Logical Machines Corporation. These names, like most of what I reported on then, are now in the footnotes of computer history but I still found lessons in the yellowed old piece, fished out of my memorabilia box.

The PC business was clearly red hot back in 1978 but very few knew just how to make money at it. I remembered that. The coming use of the personal computer as a business tool was the heart of my story. Hobbyists made up the bulk of the market at that time. I reported that swarms of small business owners were at the show, searching for ways to take advantage of the new technology, and were regarded by most vendors as the source of future growth in the market.

Few then seemed to appreciate how quickly the business use of computers was going to grow. I remembered that. Less than a year after incorporating, Apple Computer (now simply Apple) had the biggest and best display of the show. I interviewed Apple’s Director of Sales, Gene Carter, a computer industry veteran who went on to become a VP before leaving Apple in ’84 to join the team that developed Microsoft Works at Productivity Software. I remembered that contrary to others at the show Carter felt that there was little practical use for a PC. The PC, he felt, was a tool for learning “computer literacy,” That phrase became etched in my mind.

What I’d forgotten was the powerful vision behind the phrase “computer literacy.” Looking back, his vision far outweighs Carter’s timing error about business utility. “We are selling now to the leading edge of what will be a vast market for personal computers” Carter insisted. “These people are the innovators in their groups. What they are seeking is computer literacy. They will serve as advocates for the application of this technology.”

Something far more awesome than a business trend was evident. A new age was truly dawning. I’d forgotten the sense of awe I felt at that show. I’d forgotten about the significance of seeing ten year olds tickling terminal keys with ease or witnessing a boy remove the cover of a computer to explain to his father how it worked.

Today, there is too much talk about selling content like hamburgers, mass produced for online mass consumption. The concept is as appealing many of us as a Big Mac - satisfying in some ways, profitable perhaps, but not what we live for. However, providing people with vital information and tools to learn more is truly awesome.

A deep sense of wonder and the shared dream of a new mass literacy drive the dedication of many of us in the media business today. It is a great time to be in this business! And thanks, Gene Carter, for expressing your vision and for sitting through a cub-reporter interview, in Chicago, thirty-two years ago!

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