August 1, 1996

Keystrokes: Internet won’t really grow until it gets easier

I still hear it now and again, from software manufacturers waxing a little too eloquent about their sloppily produced products. The phrase means that you can set up Internet access with a single click of the mouse button. A single click? How can you do anything with a single click? You can’t, of course, but I’ll allow a little leeway, a little “poetic license,” and say that the term “one-click Internet access,” even though it doesn’t mean “literally” one click, refers to a simple process that anyone with half a brain or less could carry out. Unfortunately, truth doesn’t coincide with marketing hype. I wrote a book about connecting to the Internet with Windows 95, and found that
“100-click Internet access” would have been a more appropriate term. Although hooking up to the Internet through Microsoft’s own on-line service – Microsoft Network – was fairly simple (though far more than just one
click), trying to configure their Dial-Up Networking software to work with another service provider was far from easy. But it’s not just Microsoft’s products. I’ve installed scores of Internet-access programs over the last few years, and have run into very few that were
quick and easy, and many that were downright complicated. We’ve seen phenomenal growth in the Internet, but it’s going to slow down. One of the reasons is that connecting to the Internet is still a bit of a
hassle. A lot of a hassle in many cases. If the Internet wasn’t my business, if I didn’t know how to get around all these problems, if I was a computing neophyte … I’d give up and forget
about the Internet for now. And I’m sure many people have done just that. Who has connected to the Internet over the past two or three years? It’s people who were already using computers, mostly. Or new computer users,
people buying computers for their kids or for their businesses. Few noncomputer users decided they just had to have an Internet account and ran out
and bought a computer. But most people still don’t use computers, and fewer still have their own computer. And even fewer own a computer with enough power to run the
sophisticated Internet programs that everyone wants. (Few recent Internet programs will run on a 286, for instance, and even running Internet
software on a 386 can be horribly slow.) There’s so much talk about the Internet, and all the things it will do for us in the future, that we get a little carried away. We forget the basics. In order
for the Internet to live up to the hype, it has to have people, a lot of people. Somewhere between 5 percent and 8 percent of Americans are Internet users, ranging from the infrequent user to the up-all-night-on-the-‘net user. So
there’s a long way to go. But the people who have got on-line already were primed and ready to go; computer literate, computer owners, people who liked this technology
stuff. Most Americans are not like that, though; they’re computer phobic, they don’t own a computer, and they’re not particularly interested in getting
one. So where’s the growth going to come from? Well, one answer seems clear to me. Although the Internet may grow very large, it won’t grow as
quickly as it has over the last couple of years. It just can’t. One-click Internet access is just one reason why it won’t. Or rather, lack of one-click Internet access. Until connecting to, and using, the Internet is as
easy as turning on a TV, Internet growth will be constrained. Internet software has to be cheap, reliable, and probably built into a device that people would buy anyway – their TVs. And when will that be? Not for a few years yet. It’s unlikely that the cable-TV companies will be providing affordable, widely available connections to the Internet for five
years or so. And that’s only one component. True Internet TVs aren’t even being manufactured yet, so it will take years for these things to get into
most Americans homes. The Internet isn’t going away; no, I’m not one of those people saying that the Internet is dying, that it was a short-lived gimmick. But it will be years
for all the exaggerated promises about the wonderful things it will do for us to come true. After all, personal computers are 20 years old, and still most
people don’t have one. Peter Kent can be contacted at pkent@lab-press.com

I still hear it now and again, from software manufacturers waxing a little too eloquent about their sloppily produced products. The phrase means that you can set up Internet access with a single click of the mouse button. A single click? How can you do anything with a single click? You can’t, of course, but I’ll allow a little leeway, a little …

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