Jul 9, 2015

Online Shopping: Mr. Amazon


Amazon Logo

You will, of course, have heard of Michael Aldrich?

At least you should have. But, in all probability, you haven’t. But don’t worry, you won’t be the only ones. Which is a great pity, as the man deserves to be up there alongside some of the more famous names in recent British technological and digital innovation.

Sir Alan Sugar? Tick. James Dyson? Tick. Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Tick. Probably.

But Michael Aldrich? Nope. Isn’t he a cricketer or something?

Try again. Because he is the man you should be thinking of every time you visit Amazon, get your groceries delivered directly to your door or choose to have the latest high street fashions come to you.

Because Michael Aldrich ‘invented’ online shopping.

Shouldn’t there be a statue of him somewhere? You’d think so. Except that perhaps the last place that would have one of him would be any conventional high street, such has been the demise of conventional shopping in the last decade or so.

Aldrich mastered a system that connected a domestic TV to a computer using a telephone line to make and maintain that connection. Now, bear in mind he started doing this in 1979 so neither the TV’s of that time or the very primitive equivalents of home computers were anything like the hardware we all have access to today.

He was a man way ahead of his time.

He developed what he called videotex-in other words, a simplified menu that appeared on the TV screen from which the user could, via a keyboard, interact directly with whatever that menu happened to link the user with. This included basic messaging facilities and access to business information, ‘electric business’ as it first came to be known whilst, today, that same concept is simply known as e-business or e-tail.

Aldrich saw the facility as something which should be open and available to all rather than just the highly qualified geeks that had, up to then, made the application of computing a very elite preserve, something that was only to be accessible to their peers and never-ever who they saw as the technologically inert (ie) the likes of you and me.

So maybe we should all have a small statue of him standing by our routers?

In March 1980 (yes, this was really that long ago!) he launched a project called Office Revolution which allowed just about anyone to connect to his businesses corporate system to carry out business transactions by electronic means, all connected by a telephone line which meant, of course, they could be done in ‘real time’, that is, straight away.

No more waiting for ‘x’ days for a transaction to be confirmed, never mind completed.

The company that Aldrich worked for was known as Redifon

You may know them better as Rediffusion, a business known at the time for retailing and renting out television sets but whose main interest was distributing radio and TV signals through wired relay networks. So they had a readymade adventure playground for people like Aldrich to play around with.

His vision and their ambitions knew no limits. They were, to quote Aldrich, soon “knee deep” in projects. They introduced world firsts in the travel and car industries as well as a financing scheme for the latter that even included automatic checks with credit rating agencies. There was even a supermarket shopping and taxi service available.

All online. And all in the 1980’s. Astonishing.

Aldrich and Rediffusion went onto design, manufacture, install and sell many other online shopping systems throughout the decade, all using that same simple menu based on-screen method, something which, in appearance, would not have looked to dissimilar to the much missed information systems like Ceefax which many of you will be far more familiar with.

Michael Aldrich was, and remains, a revolutionary. It is because of him that we have all become the nation of digital shoppers that we are today. Every single person who has ever done this in their lives at least once should offer up a little thankyou to Michael Aldrich to every click they make.