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Tech lessons from Bob

By - Last modified: May 31, 2013 at 2:13 PM
Hope Stephan. Photo/Amy Spangler
Hope Stephan. Photo/Amy Spangler

Back in the day (OK, 12 years ago), when I worked at a company that published actual books, we speculated about a gadget we called Bob. It was the size of a desktop printer and was, in fact, a printer. Only this one printed books on demand and bound them. Readers would download the book they wanted and within minutes would hold a fresh copy in their hands.

Bob was rumored to be the next "big thing" coming from a major electronics company and it was going to kill our company. Or make it even better, since our biggest challenge was determining how many of a given title to print, so that we minimized our unit costs and maximized our profit (or, in some cases, made one) without having to either warehouse unsold books or reprint.

It was tricky. There's a saying in the daily newspaper industry that I'm sure applies to just about any manufacturer: In the end, you want just one left on the shelf.

That means everybody who wanted your product got one, and no customer was turned away empty-handed.

Easier said than done.

But getting back to Bob. It never materialized, and old-fashioned factors like economies of scale and cash flow were what ended up driving our company in a different direction – into the arms of a much larger competitor.

It's a good thing, too. In my mind's eye, I see vast warehouses and parking-lot-size junkyards of unsold and obsolete Bobs, because what came along were e-books and online retailers that handle not only POD sales but used copies of recent titles for as little as a penny, plus $3.99 shipping.

I got to thinking about that because of an item I came across last week: This robot allows you to attend conferences and events without ever leaving home. Something to laugh at, worry about or embrace?

In the "laugh" category, this is the kind of thing that used to be dismissed as "science fiction." Robots doing housework? Hand-held computers that access global databases at a voice command? Kitchen appliances that cook with radiation in minutes? Cars that drive themselves? Electronic devices that contain entire libraries of books? 3-D television? We've got all those now, and most are reasonably affordable.

I think that's why science fiction movies disappoint me so much today. Show me something new – not something I've already got in my purse! I saw "Star Trek Into Darkness" a couple of weeks ago, and while it was fun, it was woefully short on futurism.

Make me long for that next "big thing" or dream about some amazing gadget that will change my life. Don't just make the machines sleeker (or, in this case, the explosions more spectacular). I want ideas.

Why don't we have sonic screwdrivers yet?

The week ahead

Speaking of electronics – we were, weren't we? – in the June 7 issue, Business Journal reporter Jim Ryan profiles a midstate electronics company that started out handling used items for the wholesale and retail markets a decade ago, then decided to completely revamp its business model. Find out why and maybe pick up some tips for your own business.

Most weeks, I give you a rundown on economic-indicator reports due out in the coming week, but rarely do I go back and comment on any of them after the fact. But the Consumer Confidence index that came out May 28 is worth noting: It jumped a whopping 7.2 percentage points, bringing it to a five-year high.

On the other hand, personal income reported Friday for April was flat; spending was down 0.2 percent; and consumer sentiment (reporting for May) was up slightly. Talk about mixed signals. It's still raining, but there are signs of clearing on the horizon??

If you're looking to network, here are some ideas:

Tuesday: York Area Labor Management Council, annual dinner: 6 p.m. West Manchester Township; speaker: Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

Lebanon Valley chamber, workshop: 7:30-10 a.m. "Is Your Business Ready to Deal with a Disaster?"

Wednesday: Lebanon Valley chamber luncheon: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; West Lebanon Township; "Your Personal and Professional Reputation."

Lebanon Valley chamber group cultural tour and business mission informational meeting: 5:30-6:30 p.m., to discuss the chamber's group tour to Thailand and Hong Kong.

Thursday: Lancaster chamber Women in Business Program: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., West Lampeter Township.

Friday: Lancaster Young Professionals First Friday Happy Hour: 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Harrisburg Young Professionals First Friday Members Only Rooftop Social, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

World Affairs Council International Business Executive Luncheon Series, 11:45 a.m. Harrisburg Hilton, speak Robert Scaer on the Harrisburg region's international trade opportunities.

The rewind

If you caught the Doctor Who reference above, then you know what the TARDIS is. The midstate will be taking a trip back in time this summer as Civil War 150 observances come to Gettysburg and the locales affected by the run-up to the critical battle in July 1863.

The Business Journal has been looking periodically at the economic aspects of the event, including this story about the new museum that opened recently on Seminary Ridge. Gettysburg College posted this view from the cupola last week.

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