We are seeing the beginning of a transformation that will radically alter the shape of the Internet and mass-market computing. The key feature of this transformation is that the net will be accessible:
everywhere, everywhen by everyone
This is a technological phenomenon and also a social phenomenon. It will change the popular perception of computing, will demand totally new kinds of products and create new markets.
The end point of this technological and social transformation we call PopuNET.
PopuNET is the pervasive, permanent access to the Internet by the majority of the population.
This is not just a quantitative difference: more people using it more often; but a qualitative difference in the way individuals and societies view themselves and technology.
There is an enormous difference between going out to do something and it being part of your day-to-day activities. Public Internet terminals at libraries and cyber-cafés, even at the office desk, increases awareness and access, but doesn't change our everyday life. It is only when network and computing technology is part of our day-to-day lives that it makes a revolutionary impact. But this is happening:
For high school pupils it is increasingly the case that lack of access to a home computer is disabling and unusual, rather than access being an advantage.
As well as this increasing trend towards home PC use there are even more dramatic influences from established media: television and the telephone. Set-top boxes for cable and satellite TV will increase the overall volume of digital information flowing into the home and also allow interaction. Estimates for the UK suggest 17 million set-top boxes by the year 2000; in the US and Far East the penetration and volume are likely to be larger still.
"Bedrow [senior vice president National Digital Television Centre TCI] said TCI will begin rolling out its new advanced digital set top boxes with PersonalJava to its 25 million cable customers during the second quarter of next year. He said he hopes to increase that number to 100 million within three to five years."
(TechWeb News, 7th May 1998)
Several telephone equipment suppliers are now producing various forms of web-phone. Some include colour screens and sophisticated interaction including full web access, some are monochrome and aimed at the sub £100 market (or given away free). These trade on the familiarity and rapid access of the telephone.
The links between mobile telephony and network technology are also spreading in products like the Nokia Communicator, currently targeted principally at business users. However, this is changing as pagers and short message devices become commonplace.
In general, non-PC Internet access is due to take off, even games consoles are becoming Internet-aware for both 'collaborative' games and Internet browsing. Projections by IDC Research suggest that the Internet appliance market (STB, web-phones, consoles and PDAs) will nearly equal the PC market by 2002.
estimated growth in US (IDC Research)
Most academic and many office users of the Internet have access whenever they need it. Web and other services are permanently available. Psychologically this is very different from much home use when you have to 'connect', wait for the dial-up connection to be established and only then interact.
It's like the difference between phoning for a taxi and getting into your own car.
Furthermore, even when connected many non-US users have to constantly consider the telephone call costs (faster modems actually serve to decrease the length of time you need to be connected). In contrast, near-universal free local calls in the US have meant that Internet access has had no incremental costs (after fixed monthly charges) and have thus encouraged widespread uptake.
The only 'cost' in the USA is that the telephone can only be used for one purpose at a time. However, a small, but growing number of US home users are taking out second telephone line purely for Internet use, which is typically left connected 24 hours a day. In the UK, BT too is offering cut-price second lines (but without free local calls!).
The high proportion of digital exchanges in the UK and Europe, combined with falling ISDN costs, will primarily serve the business community, but also make the UK well placed to service a new style of mass communications so long as the pricing and connection models change correspondingly. Connection-based charging must give way to use-based charging and packet services.
Traditional terrestrial, hard-wired telephone connections will change their character, not least because they face increasing competition with other emerging mass-market voice and data services. Cable modems, wireless Internet and satellite delivery will at very least, by competition change the nature of traditional telephony.
Although most trends are towards increasing accessibility, there are opposing pulls in the US where many telephone companies are considering introducing local-call charges to counter the side-stepping of their traditional cross-subsidy from trunk calls. However, any such charges will be set at a level that does not discourage widespread Internet access.
If 5% of the population adopt a new technology, it becomes a new niche market with its own infrastructure and service industry. If 50% of the population adopt a technology it starts to change the way society thinks and works and even redefine culture.
This is evident in the rise of the motor car. A significant minority of well-off car owners was sufficient to create a booming automobile manufacturing industry and national networks of petrol stations. However, when car ownership became 'normal' it changed perceptions of travel and distance, and the very nature of town and city planning. Furthermore, it opened new markets with the creation of out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls; and fostered decline in others with the decay of city centre shopping and the collapse of public transport systems.
The mass-market user of the future will not be the PC+modem user of today. Instead it is likely that set-top boxes, net-enabled game machines and day-to-day appliances will mediate and make transparent network access. Internet use is spreading from younger age groups: 43% of US adult users are in the 18-34 age group compared with 49% in the 35-54 age group (Mediamark Research), and appliances such as web-phones will extend use to the post-60s who are the growing market group.
The answer is of course, yes, it will come, it is coming. But PopuNET is still emerging and will not really be a major market share for the next 2 years.
In 1997, the number of US home-based Internet users overtook the number of office users for the first time: 27 million home users vs. 20 million office users (Mediamark Research). Note that 27 million is over 10% of the US population. Another recent survey showed that 91% of UK households were 'Internet-aware" (Durlacher Multimedia), even of whom 17% were Internet users.
From the battles over the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows 98, to the live URLs in email and documents, there is an overwhelming market push and popular demand for easy, integrated access to the web.
PopuNET means a reshaping of popular interaction with technology. This has social and economic consequences, not least the need for radically new products for an emerging market.
Whereas Internet use has been the province of techno-freaks and class A/Bs in their 20s and 30s, the current and coming stretching of the user base is opening up this restricted market, in terms not only of age groups, but also social groups. Although small, high-value items are an obvious first-step e-commerce target, the bulk of spending power within a modern economy lies in the middle-income groups. In the UK, there is a tradition of postal shopping within these middle-income groups (Kays and Littlewoods catalogues, etc.). Over the past 20 years these have shifted from a totally postal service to significant telephone-based ordering. At present the customer base has little Internet access, but as PopuNET comes this vast market will become Internet accessible.
PopuNET changes the psychological profile and technological potential of the Internet. First it makes it easier to access the world out of your home, and second it makes it easier to push information into your home.
Just as TV and telephone are normal throughout society, so will email and browsing become 'normal', rather than special. Indeed, as families become more distant, Internet-based video office sharing can migrate to the home giving permanent shared kitchens across continents!
Not only can you contact the world yourself, but also your computer software and household appliances can access the outside world on your behalf, finding out information and monitoring the environment.
From the outside, the home's connectedness makes it possible to drive new forms of content into the home. This is central to interactive and web-aware TV, as even the traditionally conservative BBC has acknowledged in its recent deal with WebTV, which, combined with computer technology, opens up the way for mass-market push into the home.
As well as these broadcast intrusions into your home, it will be possible to have more directed messages both from others (the bus is coming) and also for the much heralded remote control of appliances.
Although apparently disparate, these emerging products and services are all linked by their reliance on ubiquitous connectivity.
When only a small percentage of people had cars there was no great disadvantage to those without, except perhaps the awakened desire for car ownership - relative poverty. However, as car use in industrialised countries has become widespread (but not universal) it has changed the way society works. The increasing cost and decay of public transport and local shopping services actually makes life worse for those without cars than if no one had any. That is, they are worse off in absolute terms, not just relative.
Whereas the term 'information poverty' has been used for some time, it is as PopuNET becomes a reality that absolute information poverty will set in. Perhaps the most serious consequence of this within industrialised countries will be for education, where the increasing use of interactive media and Internet resources will drive a wedge between the net-haves and have-nots.
On the positive side, it may be that appliance-based access to the Internet, such as set-top boxes, will alleviate this, since TV ownership is more universal than any other household appliance (beating refrigerators, baths and beds in a 1985 survey). Video ownership, although lower, is very widespread and set-top boxes are likely to follow suit.
|% lacking item|
|Bath (not shared with another household)||2|
|Beds for everyone in the household||2|
1985 data from J. Mack and S. Lansley, Poor Britain, George Allen and Unwin, 1985
(as summarised in Peter Golding (ed.), Excluding the Poor, Child Poverty Action Group, 1986)
||a MagiSoft page by Alan Dix (26/7/98)|