One of the biggest problems we face is connecting the Internet to the real world.
The trend right now is for the web to simply serve the real world as a giant catalog outlet. If it takes three or four days to get delivery from the web, why not use the phone?
Radio Shack (yes, Radio Shack) is trying to change things. It’s giving away hundreds of thousands of devices called CueCats. There’s a bar-code reader in the front and a wire (the tail) in back that connects to a PC’s PS-2 port. (A USB version is due out in a few months, as is a Macintosh adapter.)
You load the software, swipe a bar code, and get more information on whatever it was you swiped over the web. (The bar code is translated into a web page address by the client software.) Right now it’s all tied to Radio Shack and its own web site, but in theory it could have more general uses. (The words “Radio Shack” and “innovation” share a sentence so seldom, this thing has gotten almost no press coverage.)
Most of the attention given Radio Shack head Len Roberts (who got his job in January 1999) has been focused on his deals with Sprint, Microsoft, Compaq, and other key brands, or his TV ad blitz featuring Teri Hatcher and Howie Long. But if Radio Shack opened its CueCat technology to others, it could be on to something. (It would be useless if you needed a separate reader for every store.)
On the other side of real-world integration, things are more problematic. Kozmo and Webvan continue to bleed money. Courier services deliver papers, not products; their costs are too high to be worthwhile for most things; and it’s easier to just call them on the telephone.
Peter Parrish of MerchantBridge wrote me about the CueCat and also mentioned a Dallas-area trucking firm called Dynamex. It claims to be “the industry’s leading provider of same-day transportation and distribution services,” with 60 warehouses in the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, the company profile posted on its site indicates it’s concentrating on commercial accounts, not home delivery. This makes a lot of sense because businesses are far more willing and able to pay for speed than residences.
This could be in the process of changing, however. I’ve been running my business from home for 17 years now, and I’m no longer alone in that. My neighborhood now has lawyers and college professors working from home. It would be no stretch to add engineers and programmers. Trucks from UPS, FedEx, Staples, and Webvan already make regular appearances on our street. I’ve also gotten local courier deliveries.
The problem is that, in most of these cases, someone else is paying for the deliveries. (With Staples and Webvan, delivery is rolled into the retail price, so I don’t notice it.) There are great opportunities here in combining wireless devices and networks with the Internet, if the delivery routes can be made more adaptable.
So before you think it’s all been invented yet or there are no new business models around to be exploited, take a walk around your block and see who’s home. We call these people businesses and customers. The elements of a solution exist. Serve us and make money.