Article

Online Shopping in the 1980s

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Abstract

In 2008, the UK online home shopping market was worth more than £50 billion, £2.6 to £3.9 billion of which was from grocery shopping. This development was founded on advances made in the 1990s such as ubiquitous access to the World Wide Web, reasonably secure use of credits cards across the Internet, and so on. A decade earlier, Redifon Computers had introduced online shopping-then known as teleshopping. Redifon found a business-to-business market for online shopping in 1981 and a business-to-consumer market in 1984, presaging the home shopping industry we see today. In 1979, Redifon Computers was part of the UK Rediffusion Group of companies. The company was based in Crawley in Southern England. It manufactured minicomputers and designed systems for companies including Inland Revenue, British Aerospace, and Harrods. These were typically real-time systems utilizing minicomputers and desktop terminals with visual display units. At the time, I was Redifon's board director in charge of marketing, and I became CEO on 1 January 1980. We investigated an interesting piece of equipment from the domestic electronics world. In the 1970s, there was a lot of interest in home information systems, and the British public telephone service (now British Telecom) developed the Prestel (Press the Television) system, whereby news, weather, and other text information was fed through a telephone line to a domestic television. Redifon was not in the home information business, but the company had been sent a modified television for evaluation. One of our engineers, Peter Champion, opened up the TV and found it contained a chip set with a chip modem, a character generator, and an auto-dialer that could hold four telephone numbers. 1979 preproduction online shopping system. Redifon used the Prestel (Press the Television) data-transmission protocol to make televisions into real-time terminals for the first online shopping system. (Courtesy of Aldrich Archive.) My background was in computer marketing; I had worked for Burroughs and Honeywell after studying history at university. One day in the summer of 1979 I was walking with my wife and wishing that we could avoid the boring weekly shopping expedition. All of a sudden, I thought about that television and about hooking it up to the supermarket and getting the supermarket to deliver the groceries. My reasoning was that we had a domestic TV that could communicate, and we had a computer that not only could handle transaction processing from multiple users but also communicate (network) with other computers. We could build a networked real-time transaction processing system. Using an inexpensive domestic TV with a remarkably simple human interface, it could be used by anyone without training. With its ability to dial into any computer via a normal domestic telephone line, and using a standard communications and human interface, it could be used for multiple applications. It was not restricted to talking to just one computer for one function (like the airline reservation systems). It had genuine open market independent tele-shopping capabilities. Looking into the possibility more deeply, the product development and marketing costs would also be low. We already had the basic hardware and software, and we had a potential client base of large corporations and public and government institutions. We did our first market research at an exhibition at the Data Entry Management Association Conference in New Orleans in September 1979. Our stand consisted of a table covered in green cloth with the TV on top. Under the table concealed by the cloth was Peter Champion, our intrepid engineer, lying on his back ready to patch through the connection at the right moment during the presentation. It was a bit cheeky, but it worked. The visitors were interested, intrigued, and excited. We hurried back to the UK and set to work building an I/O controller, courtesy of Roger Newman and his team, and a software interface by Jim Bethell. Prestel was an implementation of videotex technology-basically analogue TV plus asynchronous digital data communication by telephone line-for a nationwide UK public information service (see Figure 1). Its origins were therefore the telecom and consumer electronics industries rather than...

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