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People vs Computers

Nowadays, we take the barcode for granted.

We see the little stripy box on almost everything we buy, wherever we buy it.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Up until about 1970, the barcode didn’t exist.

Because computers didn’t exist.

Pre-barcode, what would happen was that a shop would have to have a huge stockroom.

They’d order lots of cartons of all the products they thought they’d sell.

Then they’d do regular inventory checks, stock-taking, to see how much they had left, and when they
needed to reorder.

Keeping a daily check on stock and reordering when necessary.

And when the price changed, they had to change it on every single item.

One by one.

And the checkout girl had to enter every price into the cash register by hand.

Like an old fashioned adding machine.

But computers, and the bar code, changed all that.

Now you print a bar-code on the wrapper and it’s mass-produced and goes on every single object.

If anything changes, say price, that’s entered at head office and applies to everything carrying
that bar-code.

The checkout person doesn’t have to enter anything because the machine reads the code and enters the correct amount.

And, as it reads the code, it adjusts the stock on the main computer.

Which reorders the stock as it needs.

So the job is done efficiently, invisibly, and we all take it for granted.

And it all depends on that little bar-code.

Recently I was watching a video about the invention of the bar-code.

In America in the late 1960s, the US grocery sector realised the need for, what they called, a Universal Product Code.

It was revolutionary idea, but it was a massive job.

Some of the biggest computer companies in the world pitched for the contract.

No one knew what a Universal Product Code should look like.

So every company had a different design.

Some had concentric circles, some had half circles, some had radiating circles.

Only IBM had a simple linear design.

As each company took it in turn to present, they talked about the logic of their design.

All of the reasons it was the better choice.

Each company carefully explained that, when held the right way, their design should register on the scanner.

Each company had spent months working on their pitch.

So they spent hours on overhead projections of charts, and graphs, and research, explaining why their approach was better.

Every company had their own persuasive, logical, sensible argument.

It seemed almost impossible to choose between them.

Then it was IBM’s turn.

Their design was very basic, very simple.

They’d printed up lots of their little design on small adhesive stickers.

Instead of going through hours of charts, they opened up a box of Camay soap.

Then they began sticking their little design on the bars of soap.

Then one of the IBM team stood at the far end of the checkout counter and slid a bar of Camay soap as fast as he could along it.

It slid the full length of the counter, over the scanner.

The scanner went ‘beep’ and showed “Soap 85c” on the cash register’s illuminated display.

He heard the board gasp.

He slid another bar even faster the length of the counter and over the scanner.

Then another, then another.

Each time, the scanner went ‘beep’ and ‘Soap 85c’ showed up on the cash register.

Then, to prove he wasn’t faking it, he asked the board to try it themselves.

It was like bowling, or like sliding a hockey puck.

They slid it as fast as they could, and every time it registered.

They were like children, playing a game having a great time.

Everyone relaxed.

Instead of trying to understand complicated rational arguments, they could see it in action.

They could feel it, they could do it.

It was real.

This is what they were looking for.

Right then and there is when IBM won the contract.

Despite all the complicated sales arguments and research documents that everyone else had spent months carefully crafting.

IBM won it by sliding a few bars of soap along the counter.

And not just by understanding how computers work.

By understanding how people work.

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