The End of An Era

For those of you who missed it, Western Union Recently made the following announcement on their web site:

“Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.”

For most of us, this was probably a non-event. After all, when was the last time you either sent or received a telegram? But there is a much bigger issue; this is ends an era that began over 150 years ago and can arguably be classified at the genesis of the trillion dollar communications industry that evolved and helped fuel our migration from an agricultural to industrial age.

Samuel Morse sent the first message over a 40 mile wire from Baltimore to Washington D.C. in May of 1844, about three years before Alexander Graham Bell was even born. From that point on, the telegraph and telegrams were ingrained in our culture. Massive infrastructure was laid across the United States during the mid 1800’s and the East and West were able to communicate at speeds that were incomprehensible when that first message was transmitted.

Early in the last Century, the telegram and it’s messenger where engrained in our culture. Almost every movie, play, radio program, and book had at least one scene that included a message being delivered. A telegram being delivered marked a significant event, some good and some tragic. They were used to quickly convey congratulations and recognition of accomplishment and how many families from the 1940’s thru the mid 1970’s received the infamous “We regret to inform you that…”

So what happened? Did the folks at Western Union mismanage the company, not understand what was happening, take their eye off the prize? Hardly, they are currently a $3B revenue stream to First Data Corporation, so they did see the change and made the right changes for their stock holders and employees. What they saw and had absolutely no control was the Internet and the speed at which it was adopted and led to free and ubiquitous email and their being disintermediated by it in only 10 years (I feel safe in saying this happened much sooner than 10 years, they could have made this announcement three or four years ago, they just got around to it).

The key point is that it did happen and a powerful company with all its historical significance was unable to stop it. It shows why the Bill Gates’ and Andy Grove’s of the world believe that paranoia is just another business skill that we should all develop.

Every business owner should be at least a little paranoid about what one of their neighbors are cooking up in their garage down the street. On the other hand with the entreprenuerial spirit that exists, maybe we should all go and see if we can’t come up with a better use for our own garage. “You know I always thought that I could…” STOP



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