FedEx at Forty: Pushing Boundaries
FedEx innovators lead the way in bold advances.
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“Website? What’s a website?”
Recalling a 1978 quote from Smith that “the information about the package is as important as the package itself,” Carter says one of the firm’s first advances was creating an in-process quality control system that tracked the location of packages. Then in the early 1980s, FedEx moved ahead with hand-held computers. “There was nothing like it at the time,” says Carter, “having this device to let us trace packages as they moved from point A to point B.”
The mid-1980s saw the company erecting radio towers coast to coast, on highways and atop buildings. “The handheld computers were in the trucks, and data moved over a radio network out to the couriers.” Towards the end of the decade, the tracking system took a big leap when customers, through CompuServe and America Online (now AOL), could dial in and track packages themselves — a step that eventually led to the first version of FedEx online.
In the 1990s, shortly after Carter was hired, the firm’s innovators met with Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Micro systems and one of a group of young tech stars that included Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. “Bill Joy was here reaching out to companies at the edge of innovation and challenged FedEx about its website. I was like, ‘Website? What’s a website?’” Though he wasn’t involved in the creation of fedex.com, Carter describes it as “pretty edgy.” While most corporate websites in that era were messages from CEOs, FedEx’s showed a flying package leaving a trail behind with a small block in which customers could key in their tracking number. “Ours was the first instance of a transactional website,” says Carter. “That move started with us. We had been doing it with PC software and CompuServe and America Online, but this was the first on the Internet.”