Looking back from the vantage point of 2096, it is hard to believe that people actually used to buy their computer applications in boxes.
Strangely enough, the people who sold those boxes used to make a profit - although to be fair, this was no longer the case after about 1992.
It is a valuable history lesson to realise that while the computer industry has enriched our language immensely, with the wider use given to a variety of new phrases, the beautiful rich terms that they introduced to the English language are now all but forgotten. While words that were once jargon, such as multitasking, docking station, beta testing and general protection fault, now have a meaning far beyond the computer business, new expressions like, 'to gates' and 'to standardise on a thin client architecture', have become slang terms of abuse. Beautiful old English expressions, such as two-tier model, co-operative marketing fund and stock turn, have fallen instead into disuse.
In his recent State Of The Planet address, world president and CEO Sir Larry Ellison told the United Network of People that looking back was the sign of a weak mind. 'The past has nothing to tell us,' he said. 'What matters is how we can fix the problems of today, or at least how convincingly we will tell the general public that they will get fixed some time in the future. Few of you will recall a young entrepreneur by the name of Bill Gates, and that's another good reason why I don't want you thinking about the past.'
Far be it from me to quibble with the world's most important man, the inventor of the network computer - a device that, at its cheapest, sold for as little as $5,000 and revolutionised software distribution. But I sincerely believe that a close look at the way in which people who sold computers chose to name themselves gives us a clue to the ingenuity of the human mind. It may be a myth that the Eskimos have more than 40 words for snow (actually they have two), but the computer business once had almost that number for its glorious diversity of sales organisations.
This linguistic ingenuity is even more remarkable, because at least you can tell the difference between different types of snow by looking at it. No one ever said that of the channel.
What is the channel, you ask? This was the overall name for the network of people who filled the gap between manufacturer and consumer. The origins of the name are now lost, but the most likely scenario recalls the days of pre-genetic farming. A channel, as you know, is another name for a shallow trough. In the old days, bacon came from quadrupeds that still had mouths which needed feeding. The image of a row of pigs at a trough was a common metaphor that applied perfectly to the computer sales business.
Hence, the story goes, the channel was a trough at which the industry fed.
So far, it has been simple. Now it gets complicated. For reasons of personal vanity, members of the channel liked to give themselves grandiose titles to distinguish their roles from those of their competitors. You may find this hard to believe in an era when the dominant organisational doctrine was to adopt flat management structures, but it appears that with the benefit of hindsight that flat management was intended only for organisations with which you had to compete, and never for your own business. In the channel, we had a re-creation of the ancient British class structure, a system in which some people did all the work, and others made all the money from it.
The original channel included one class, dealers. Despite the common misconception that this was derived from the criminal element of society in the 1990s who illicitly sold drugs, to be a dealer in any business carried few negative connotations.
While dealers were undoubtedly successful, the increasing simplicity of selling computers meant that soon some members of the channel became unhappy with the title and preferred something that gave the impression their work was more skilled than average. It has often been said that this was a response to the increasing difficulty of selling personal computers, which were certainly lamentably complex at the time.
The opposite is now known to be the case. Whereas in the early days of the PC it was quite an achievement to actually get one to work, by the time a significant number of dealers decided to rename themselves, knowledge levels had changed, and several had trouble finding the on switch after lunch on a Friday.
Nevertheless, a new governing class spontaneously developed, calling itself the resellers. More smartly dressed than dealers, and generally with more disposable income, they adopted attitudes that were significantly different. While dealers tended to hang round in gangs - often at venues such as Earls Court in London and the NEC in Birmingham, where they would often consume lager in large quantities - resellers preferred a mobile existence, travelling the major roads of the UK in medium-sized saloon cars (dealers preferred hatchbacks or Transit vans, because of their superior cargo space).
Other differences were evident to the casual observer. Newsreel footage from the early days of Channel Vision shows dealers eating a variety of ethnic food, including doner kebabs, chips with gravy and chicken vindaloos.
Despite the well-known, health-giving properties of these foodstuffs, dealers tended to favour a more robust physique, perhaps for lifting the heavy square boxes that many can be seen carrying towards their hatchbacks.
Resellers preferred to do lunch at one of a number of business hotels, often travelling all the way to the local international airport to dine.
The subcultures also developed different dress codes. A dealer would usually wear a short-sleeved shirt made from some artificial fibre, with a pocket into which pens would be clipped. The reseller favoured a double-breasted suit.
Within these cultures, differences soon appeared. The extremists from the dealer fraternity were rechristened box-shifters by their peers. This was, apparently, a term of abuse, meaning that the dealer in question was employed solely to sell computers, that is, to move the box from the warehouse to the customer's location. This seems odd nowadays, because your first question may be what did the other ones do, and why was this frowned upon? No one knows for certain.
The box-shifters developed their own colourful argot, derived from the dialect prevalent in the location where they were concentrated, that is, London's Tottenham Court Road. Perhaps the best example of this survives in the dialogue from the film classic The Alan Sugar Story.
Box Shifter: 'You paying cash mate?'
Box Shifter: 'Ssh, quiet mate. Don't want the filth asking questions do we? Cos if you're carrying cash see, we can lose the VAT.'
Box Shifter: 'Pipe down, pipe down, they'll all want one. All right.
Five hundred quid. Ten monkeys. Five C notes - take it or leave it.'
Punter: 'I'm sorry, I don't understand.'
Box Shifter (shouting): 'Shush! You're attracting attention. Keep it under yer 'at, knock me down with a feather, I do believe on my honour he's going to pass this one up. On my life! Cor blimey, you drive a hard bargain and no mistake. Tell you what, four-fifty and we'll throw in the software. It's good stuff, copied it meself. That's my handwriting on the CD-Rom.'
Punter: 'But the man at the front of the shop said it cost four hundred.'
Box Shifter: 'You're a boy you are. Four hundred? Yer taking the bread from my mouth. I won't go below three-fifty, innit.'
Punter: 'Done. How long's the warranty?'
Box Shifter: 'Eh? Sorry mate, can't hear you.'
Among the reseller community, similar schisms appeared, again based on price. Those who attempted to charge more for their computers rechristened themselves value-added resellers to denote that they charged extra for related services such as delivery, unpacking the box and clearing up the little polystyrene maggots that went everywhere when they unpacked the box. Only now do we know the severe physical risk they were taking in handling those little polystyrene maggots, which have resisted all known efforts to control them and are now buried in a toxic waste dump in the restricted area that used to be called Slough.
For a time, the term value-added proved extremely fashionable, being added to almost any title in the channel to justify extra costs. During the depression of the early 1990s, it was only the illusory ability to add value that preserved profit margins. When the Pyramid Selling, Management Seminar Organising and Other Dodgy Business Practices Bill of 1997 was passed, the term was made illegal.
Soon, many box-shifters (feeling increasingly marginalised) retreated to a twilight world, in which they refused to meet their customers face-to-face. We can only assume at this distance that the changes were prompted by the shame of being social pariahs, although there is no direct evidence to support this. This subculture called itself the off-the-page dealer - an interesting duality, as those dealers sold through advertisements in magazines and were thus the only on-the-page people in the channel.
As time progressed, an older generation of companies wanted to distinguish themselves from the younger, busier resellers. The concept of adding value was of little use to them as they did not sell anything to which they could add value. This was solved by adopting the term systems integrator, which cannily removed any notion of selling the computers in the first place.
Systems integrators proved immensely popular as it soon occurred to any other members of the channel that they could apply the term to just about anything they did - giving them a sorely needed revenue stream.
The process was taken to its logical conclusion by the extremist consultants, who could still command fees, even after the customer had paid a box-shifter, a value-added reseller and a systems integrator in turn. Consul- tants were harder to recognise because they showed no predictable pattern to their behaviour. They would appear alone or in packs, stay in one place or move around, be part of large organisations or work independently.
Gradually, the chameleon-like qualities of the large consultancies meant they were reabsorbed into polite society. This was done by a process known as outsourcing, where large sections of the workforce were re-employed by consultancies to do the same job as they had been doing before.
Often it would be weeks, or even months, before they were fully aware that they had changed jobs - usually when they were made redundant.
Only one question remains to be answered about those far-off times. What did the class known as distributors do? It is known from the surviving evidence that distributors were disliked by all types of dealers and manufacturers alike. These large organisations were extremely active, although in hindsight their activities did not seem to make anyone happy, add to our knowledge of the industry, or create any profit for those involved.
While few of us have any need or desire to visit the area once known as the Thames Valley, it is still rumoured that it is populated by a race known only as the channel partners. Totally wild, having returned to their natural state, we may think we have little to learn from them in the age of electronic distribution.
Rumours abound of drinking, cannibalism, excessive fornication and a system of feudal patronage known as the credit line. Now hopelessly inbred, they are lost to polite society. Nevertheless, they made the world what it is today and truly deserve to be commemorated.
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