Ecommerce in 1984: Innovation is never pretty at first

By Erin Griffith , written on January 14, 2014

From The News Desk

In its earliest versions, technology is never the slick, smooth-operating magic it aspires to be. That takes iteration. Sometimes the tools just aren't yet able to do what some visionary imagines they will one day be able to do. Other times people aren't yet ready for a new way to do things. Either way, it's easy to look at a new piece of technology, be it Google Glass, bitcoin, 3D printing, or Smartwigs, and dismiss it as useless, unnecessary, clunky, or not worth it.

Last week I noted that the first version of Twitter was panned by TechCrunch commenters when it was first launched. Meanwhile Facebook was known as "just for college kids" for the longest time, and Snapchat was "just for sexting."

There are plenty of other examples: In 1992, wireless personal communicators (i.e., cell phones) were "a pipe dream driven by greed," according to Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel. Others quoted in the story were quick to point out how cumbersome and ineffective the early versions of cell phones were. Which is fair enough -- the early cells phones were horrendous. But just about every good idea in tech has been snarked on and called pointless at first.

Today I encountered a fun one: early ecommerce. NPR's new archives Tumblr has a 1984 report on one of the first ecommerce transactions. This was a whole decade before Amazon was founded. It was not pretty.

Since home computers weren't common in 1984, the transaction involved a $600 device from a Florida company called Viewtron, which hooked up to your typewriter and television. In addition to the $600 box, users would have to pay $12 per month for the privilege of shopping. (NPR's reporter Robert Krulwich correctly pointed out that it wasn't a great value proposition: "I don't have to buy a Sears catalog," he argued.)

A Viewtron spokeperson navigated him through the shopping process, where tickets, home entertainment, hobbies, and "balloon adventures" were available to buy. By the time he picked the category he wanted, "paperback quality books" -- there were just eight books and two calendars available. "You have to understand the company is very much in a startup situation," an analyst pointed out, noting that with technology, the selection could in theory be endless.

The transaction played out similar to the way we shop online today, with credit card inputs, the ability to cancel, shipping and the option to leave a note with your order. The big difference was that instead of an email confirmation, our 1984 online shopper gets a letter in the mail.

This recording is fun to listen to because, unlike most outdated writing about technology, the analyst which Krulwich interviews actually sees the vision. He correctly predicts the future of ecommerce, noting that it'll take some time. But once large stores like Macy's, Sears, Dalton Books, sign up, online shopping could become a real thing, he says. "It's probably going to take five to ten years for enough people to say, 'Gee, what's on that service really is unique. … Chances that they're going to make a dime out of these services in the next five years is close to nil."

In 2013, global ecommerce sales hit $1.25 trillion.

[image via DCvision2006]