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Chicken and Egg

Which came first, the telephone or the skyscraper?Give up? The answer is the telephone. Think about it: without a telephone, who would want to live or work on the 50th story of a high-rise building? How would you get anything done? No-one has this kind of time. Without a telephone we would all be running up and down the stairs all day long. We would all need our own lifts. All business would be done on the street, at ground level.

The telephone liberated us. It allowed us to live vertically.

Think of a flea market. Who at a flea market has a sophisticated PABX system installed? Of course they don’t, otherwise they would be in a fancy office somewhere.

So the argument works both ways. But jokes aside, it is the phone and the PABX that allowed companies to expand vertically into high-rise office buildings.

And the Internet has taken this liberation to another level. Between e-mail and the Web people are working from airplanes, island retreats and the polar caps.

What is so cool about this communications technology is that it has a very short history. It is pretty straightforward to trace the start of all this liberation from birth to today.

Did you know, for example, that the word “hello” was invented after the telephone? Think about it. You got this new invention, the phone, and it rings, and you pick up and say – what? So a new word was invented to help us deal with this new technology.

Have you ever wondered who bought the first fax machine?

This always intrigues me. Perhaps it is my Internet background. When I was out there evangelising the Internet in South Africa, when Internet Solutions (IS) first started back in 1993, I always used to ask people this question.

To whom would they send a fax? And who would they be receiving a fax from? The egg before the chicken?

And then came the Internet. At IS, we used try to persuade people to go online. But why? Whom were they going to e-mail? Well, for starters, I would e-mail them. And they would e-mail me back.

Probably the first fax someone received was their bill from the fax company for their new fax machine. Imagine how they must have felt to have received a payment reminder on their new miracle machine. I am being silly now, but you get the idea.

After last week’s column about the paradox of progress I thought I would take you back to the start of all these digital distractions. Let me end with a story about telecommunications in Australia.

So a guy goes to the Australian phone company in the 1950s and says he is going to invest in rolling out “tiekieboxes” throughout pubs and restaurants in Australia. He reckons he will split the profit with the phone company.

So he spends millions deploying these phone boxes only do discover that the profit was very small. You see, they had a similar phone system in the 1950s in Australia to what we had here in South Africa up to about 15 years ago.

They had the flat rate unit system, which means you could make a call and stay on the phone all day without any usage charges. These days, the more you talk the more you pay (talk is not cheap any more).

So our panicked entrepreneur goes back to the phone company and says that he is in trouble. He tells them that they need to roll out the unit system because the flat rate billing is killing him.

But this was not their problem. The deal was that our entrepreneur was going to absorb the risk of rolling out the callboxes. So he was in trouble.

And do you know what he did? He went and put a few pounds of led in every handset of each of the tiekieboxes he rolled out. And the revenues rolled in. I guess people just aren’t into heavy conversations!

Technology is changing everything. And it is a funny business. The only place that doesn’t seem to change is the ’ol post office. Ironically, the only people not obsessed with pushing the envelope are postal employees.

And on that note, I better get back to work. The footskaters are keeping me busy at the moment; they just launched their new web site.

Yes, yes, that is a blatant punt, but forgive me; this column has been all over the map.

  • Ronnie Apteker is one of the founders of Internet Solutions, the country’s largest corporate Internet service provider. He is also a movie producer, an author of two books and sometimes a stand up comedian.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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