Not Ready for Prime Time

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal (or was it the New York Times -- who knows?) set tongues wagging with a new data point. It seems that 11% of the American public now has access to the Internet. "Huzzah!"crowed the voices. "Internet is now mass market!"

This tongue would rather wag in a different direction. This tongue has lots of cynical observations to make about that news story.

11% ain’t mass market
This might seem like a big figure after all, it represents 30 million people -- but it doesn’t add up to mass market. Recall that when 11% of Americans had VCRs, back in the early 1980s, videotape rental stores were few and far between. When 11%of Americans had television, in the early 1950s, television programs weren’t all that great. You need higher penetration rates to get to mass market.

Access ain’t usage
Remember, the story said that 11% of all Americans had access to the Internet. That doesn’t mean that they actually use it. 99% of all Americans live within driving distance of a bookstore that can order Erasmus books.

There are different kinds of usage
The majority of Internet users are really doing nothing more than email. But you can’t satisfy the grandiose predictions of the Internet enthusiasts with email. All those Internet-intensive applications are enjoyed by the aficionados. That 11% figure most definitely does NOT mean that 11% of all Americans are Internet aficionados.

The net is not ready for prime time
Let’s face it, folks, this stuff is still not ready for Aunt Millie. There remain several killer problems.

First is the matter of user interface. Certainly Web browsing is a great deal easier than Internet digging, but there are still too many obstacles. The error messages coming back from the Web are utterly obscure to the nontechnical. We still have a long way to go here.

Next comes access speed. Sure, those of you with T1 connections think that Web browsing is just peachy, but Aunt Millie poking along with her 9600 baud modem will not be so impressed. And your refrain that Aunt Millie should buy a faster modem doesn’t cut it with normal people who have other things to spend their money on.

Then there’s system reliability. As one journalist put it, if the telephone network were as reliable as the Internet, we’d have people demonstrating in the streets. It takes me an average of two attempts to get online with AOL. Imagine having to dial twice every time you wanted to make a phone call.

Here are some other statistics, garnered from a story by Rory O’Connor in the San Jose Mercury News: Homemakers constitute 11% of the US population, but only 1%of WWW users. The retired and unemployed make up 17% of the population, but only 2% of the WWW population.

We’ll get there someday, but we’re not there yet, and there’s no point in kidding ourselves. We’ve got a lot of work to do before this thing will really fly.