We have all had those “Wow” moments with computers when some new application, device or software program wakes us from our technological slumber and becomes part of our day-to-day lives.
For me, those moments included the first time I played with Electrical Wholesaling's first computer, a vintage Apple desktop system that we kept on a rolling cart so we could move it from office-to-office on the 36th floor of New York's McGraw-Hill building. Then there was the first time I saw a fax printing from a 1980s-era fax machine in those offices, and the distinctive beeps, buzzes and static I heard that signaled a modem's successful “handshake” when I first figured out how to send some of the magazine's files electronically to our printer two states away. And I will never forget seeing an internet address for NASA almost two chalkboards long during a seminar in Kansas City for journalists on using the internet, typing that address into a computer, and being blown away by a library of NASA images from outer space.
I got to thinking about my earliest computer memories while reading Executive Editor Doug Chandler's cover story on the changes in the distribution software industry. While this business is rapidly consolidating to a handful of big players like Epicor, Infor and SAP, hundreds of employees who worked for the many smaller software companies that were rolled up into these behemoths each had their own “Wow” moments as they developed the technological framework that supports the inner workings of much of the software electrical distributors, electrical manufacturers and independent manufacturers' reps use everyday.
One person in the distribution software industry who has probably had a lifetime of these “Wow” moments is Dr. John Meggitt, who founded Prophet 21 Inc., Yardley, Pa., in 1967. He was one of the most interesting software guys I ever met. In addition to starting up Prophet 21, Meggitt was a talented oil painter who displayed some of his work in his Yardley office, and an avid roller-blader who could often be seen skating through Yardley's streets along the banks of the Delaware River.
According to a 1989 article in Industrial Distribution magazine, Meggitt was doing computer programming as far back as the mid-1950s, when he “wrote” programs by “punching holes in paper tapes, inches at a time, for computers powered by vacuum tubes.”
It's hard to fathom all that's happened in distribution software since then, but it's even more interesting to think about what the “Wow” moments will be in this market during the next few years. When using the following technologies becomes as a regular a routine for your customers as tying on their work boots each morning, they will really change how this market works.
Attributed data for the masses
Trade Service Corp., San Diego, is well along this path with its digitized catalog content, and IDEA, Arlington, Va., continues to coax its manufacturer members to load attributed data such as line drawings, images and related rich data into individual product files for the industry data warehouse (IDW). But the pool of this data that's now available for electrical contractors and other end users for online shopping expeditions is still pretty small — particularly compared to what's available in the digital catalogs at www.grainger.com or www.homedepot.com.
More mature mobile applications
Let's face it — most manufacturers, distributors and reps are still in kindergarten when it comes to their schooling in how to adapt mobile technology to the ordering process. Many mobile phone apps for electrical professionals are still “nice-to-have” instead of “got-to-have,” and iPads and other tablet computers haven't even been out for two years. This will all change, and it's going to be exciting to see what the geniuses amongst us develop in the mobile arena.
We have come a really long way in the electrical market with technology and are pretty advanced when compared to many other distribution niches. But there's so much more that can be done — and so many more “Wow” moments to savor.