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TechWatch: Finding Best Use for New Technology

Even a veteran technologist has to be impressed with the continued breakthroughs made possible by new tools coming from the information technology world. Powerful search capability, wireless communications, and new storage devices are creating change in the way information is handled that rivals the impact of the World Wide Web from a decade ago.

But new technology may be far less interesting than what creative people do with it. Usually, there are false starts and overlooked applications as people try out the new technology to see if it truly offers value or only creates hype. We certainly experienced this with the World Wide Web, where we saw over-hyped false starts as well as great business breakthroughs that are still being developed.

Here is some speculation about new opportunities, and potential false starts, with some of the newer technology.

Search Technology for Filing

A letter arrives in your office from Wang Zhang in China regarding their bid on your widget manufacturing project. The letter is dated August 11, 2005. How should this letter be filed?

It could be according to date. It could be by name, but which name? In China it is customary to have the last name first, so using the American custom we would file this under Wang rather than Zhang. It could be placed in the China file. Or in the widget manufacturing file. Or if it is urgent, it might be placed in the “action” folder on the top of your desk. Or it could be sent to the person responsible for handling the widget project, or the person responsible for China relationships, or the person working with Mr. Wang.

One simple approach, taking advantage of copier technology, is to make multiple copies of the letter and place one in each of the suggested files. But of course, this creates other problems. When the letter is reviewed and notes are added to the margin, who makes sure the notes are added to all copies? And who remembers where all of the copies are filed? I am certain different offices have different processes by which they solve this simple dilemma.

But whatever the process, progress in search technology suggests a completely different approach.

If the letter is in electronic form, it does not have to be filed at all. Using modern search technology, the letter could be found by using many possible search terms, including:

<Wang, widget, 200>5
<Zhang, manufacturing, China>

If the letter were in paper form, it could be filed according to any of the possible schemes defined above, by creating a record in a database using keywords Wang, Zhang, August, 2005, widget, manufacturing, correspondence, and China, along with a notation of where it is filed. Then to find it, the database could be searched using keywords and the record would be found, showing where the letter is filed.

What this suggests is that technology introduces another dimension into something as mundane as filing. No longer are we restricted to filing things according to a one-dimensional key. In the film “Disclosure,” a company introduced a product that used virtual reality to retrieve documents. The user would put on a special pair of glasses and “walk” down a corridor to a “filing cabinet” where they could pull up the electronic documents they were looking for. This may represent the poorest use of the technology imaginable, since it kept all of the limitations of linear storage!

We are rightly excited about the new worlds opened up by today’s search capability. Research has been transformed and reference material including definitions and histories is easily accessed. Even the old nemesis of search, making sure names or terms are exact and spelled correctly, is being solved. For example, looking for a quote that goes something like, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” can be entered into Google and produces the accurate quote, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” And searching for information on Fullbright scholarships produces the response (again from Google), “Did you mean Fulbright?” and provides the references to the Fulbright sites.

But as powerful as search capability is becoming, a significant payoff is not just better search capability. It offers a new way to file, store, and manage information.

Technology and Product Pricing

Managing price changes was a very time-consuming task in the past. It meant changing physical labels. Not so with advances from information technology. Though still a difficult task to change the advertised prices in a grocery store, for example, it is an easy matter to change prices associated with a particular barcode so that when a product is scanned, the latest price is reflected. It may not be long before even the advertised prices could be updated automatically. Using portable scanners on the grocery carts could provide up to date pricing information. So could RFID tags tied to readers located near the products.

None of these challenges are there for the online shopper. Product pricing can be changed at any time. In fact, they can be tailored to a particular individual. A customer known to shop regularly could be charged more, counting on the expected repeat business, while the new shopper could be charged less to entice him or her to come back. Sounds far fetched? It isn’t.

A study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, reported by the Associated Press in June 2005 explored this area. Among their findings:

  • A retail photography Web site was found charging different prices for the same digital cameras. Prices depended on whether shoppers had previously visited popular price-comparison sites.
  • Grocery stores increasingly offer personalized discounts and coupons based on a person’s shopping behavior.
  • Amazon.com outraged some customers in September 2000 after one buyer deleted the electronic tags on his computer that identified him as a regular customer and noticed the price of a DVD changed from $26.24 to $22.74.

In addition, the study found:

  • Most American consumers don’t realize Internet merchants sometimes charge different prices to different customers for the same products. Retailers call the practice “price customization.”
  • Nearly two-thirds of adult Internet users believed incorrectly it is illegal to charge different people different prices.
  • More than two-thirds of people surveyed also said they believed online travel sites are required by law to offer the lowest airline prices possible. Of course they are not.

This represents an area where the law has not caught up with technology. Even figuring out what, if any, new laws are needed to cover these practices is not clear. But even these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine a soft drink machine that charged 50 cents for soda in the morning when the machine is full and the weather is cool, but charges $3 for the same soda in the heat of the afternoon when the machine is almost empty.

Or consider the sports stadium or theater selling seats to their events. You may have experienced buying a seat in the premium section only to find out that you are in the last row of that price—the seats the next row back are $20 cheaper. This kind of pricing (by section) is rooted in the older idea that a small number of variations in pricing made it easier to print and sell tickets. With today’s technology, every seat price could be different. Instead of a significant drop in price between row 20 and 21, why not a gradual drop in price between every row? And every seat moving out from the center?

You could go one step further than this. A sports team could price tickets for a popular opponent on a weekend at a higher price than a less popular opponent on a Tuesday when the stadium is less likely to be sold out.

I am not recommending any of these ideas. But they are all made possible by today’s information technology. They all have potential downsides as well as upsides.

Archiving Information

A letter in the technology section of our local newspaper caught my attention: “We had a lot of family pictures on slides taken from 1950 to 1970 and would like to place them on CDs. How do we go about this?” The editor of the section proceeded to tell the person the technical approach to moving pictures from slides to CD, including some companies that offer the service.

It sounds great, but no one raised the next point. The slides have been around for 50 years. Many of us have photographs that have been around much longer than that. Companies have documents that have existed as long as the company. Are there some downsides as well as upsides to transferring all of this information to CDs?

The upsides are clear. No more bulky slide projectors. Dozens of slide trays could be replaced of a single CD. Simpler access to the information. All of this is true and it makes the transfer seem very attractive.

But what about the downside questions? They start with the expected life of the CD, which some studies suggest may be about 10 years! This is a far cry from the hundreds, even thousands, of years that a paper document may be expected to last. And what about the technology that reads today’s CDs? Even if the CD remained readable in 20 years could we expect to have the technology to read this CD in that timeframe? Remember the storage capability of 20 to 30 years ago (punch cards, eight-track tapes, 5 1/4” floppies) is not readable by any of our modern technology. Even the 3 1/2” floppies we used 10 years ago are now widely unusable.

You should still consider transferring older documents and photographs to electronic form. But don’t forget about the migration problem you now face.

Conclusion

New technology offers great, sometimes unexpected, opportunities. Technology leaders are going to look for creative ways to use the new technology for business benefit. My caution is to think carefully about potential unintended consequences. They will be there, and you won’t find them all. But by asking some simple questions, you might both create new opportunities and avoid potentially serious pitfalls down the road.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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