Future Growth of the Net?

Some Background - and my Thoughts

In the first years of this century, radio -- like the computer today -- was a consuming hobby for those involved. The technology was advanced, and few people understood how it worked, or the benefit it would eventually bring.

Those early experimenters who chose 'wireless' as a hobby were not afraid of the new technology. They enjoyed the learning process, experimentation, and learned to build upon their failures. Trial and error was taken as a natural part of the hobby.

To be a 'wireless' experimenter in those early years you had to build your own equipment. Parts were difficult to procure and they were expensive. The techniques of radio were new, the technology was in a state of change and therefore, it was sometimes confusing. Groups of experimenters were drawn to each other to share information and techniques.
Even after you had a receiver built and working, a challenge remained in just finding and tuning a station to listen to. A half hour adjusting the 'cats whisker' on a crystal to hear a station 50 miles away was a great thrill.
As the radio apparatus improved, tuning still required adjustment of three or more controls - each of which affected the adjustment of the others. After successfully tuning a station, there was no guarantee that the next time the radio was turned on the settings would be the same. The tuning changed depending on factors such as temperature and weather, and the broadcasting stations came on and went off the air without warning. This was of course frustrating to the new user - and it's easy to imagine that many became disillusioned, and left the hobby.

Near the end of the 1920's, and into the 1930's radio technology had advanced to the point where it went beyond the basement workshop of the amateur radio operator, the radio 'buff', or the affluent household with the newest technological toys. Although you may have still hired a person to install the antenna and run the wire, for the most part you brought your set home and plugged it in. One knob turned it on, another tuned it, and a third controlled the volume. The days of multiple batteries, difficul tuning, and unscheduled broadcasts was past.
At about this time, manufacturers began to package their sets to match the decor of most homes - paying attention to hiding cables and batteries. Also, the programming available became worthwhile.
The thirties marked the 'Golden Age of Radio'. Networks and advertisers were spending large sums of money to provide quality programming. These programs were good enough that people 'had' to be near the radio at certain times to hear their favorite personalities and stars, and the subject of last nights show was often cause for discussion at the office.
These changes in the new technology, and the quality of the programming made it easy, and important enough that large numbers of people began to utilize the technology.

It was at this point, radio really began to grow.

It was:
easy to use,
it was unobtrusive,
and there was worthwhile programming.

So, how does this relate to the Internet?

Today's first time or potential Internet user faces uncertainty in the purchase, installation, and use of their new computer.
Unless you are familiar with the technology, comfortable with the process of a software learning curve, and don't mind the time needed to learn an operating system - the whole process is still pretty daunting.
Like the early 20's, today it often takes the technology 'guru' in the family or neighborhood (I'll bet it's you) to instruct the new user and set up the system. Once it's set up and running, numerous phone calls and visits later the user is able to begin the learning curve, and get on-line.
By contrast, radio and TV are wonderfully easy to use. You flip it on and watch, or listen. Change the channel by pushing a button, watch something else. Easy.

Perhaps WEB TV' is not such a bad thing. Our current method of getting on the net involves booting/loading an operating system, loading the browsing software, connecting, searching, and finally getting somewhere you wanted to go.
Now, I like computers. Really I do. I enjoy the process of setting up and learning sytems and software. But the majority of the population will want to be able to turn something on and be connected. Now. No busy phone lines, no messing around.

Technology is changing too fast for consumers to make informed decisions.
I don't need to point that out, other than to say the average person shopping for a way to get on-line has no reason to believe his equipment purchase will still be good a year from now. One of the setbacks dealt to FM broadcasting was the frequency change mandated by the FCC just as FM was becoming a going concern. That move greatly slowed the growth of this mode - and as a result it didn't really catch on til the late 50's. Those who had purchased the first FM receivers really got burned.
A stable platform for the technology to follow is very important - backward compatibility of new technology, AND the forward compatibility of current technology. In television, color programs can be seen on black and white sets. In radio, stereo broadcasts are compatible with mono receivers. The new technology must be able to be used with old technology, and the old technology used with new. The system you buy today should be able to use, at least at some level, the technology of tomorrow.
Also, it does not matter which side of the computer platform you are on - MAC or IBM - having two incompatible systems (VHS and Betamax?) does not help consumer confidence.
With every burned consumer a backlash against new technology will grow.

Most people cannot afford Internet access.
That is, the monthly charge, or the equipment. You can buy a nice table radio for $20, or a boom box for $100. These are not high end audio, but they do allow you access to everything on the radio. As a result, the average American home has over 5 radios, and if needed anyone can be near a radio within minutes. If we assume there are now some 50 million people with access to the World Wide Web, that is only a 6th of the entire US population, which I trust you will agree has the most access of any other country.
This is a very small percentage - and is made up of those with some 'discretionary income'. Unless you are a techie, able to build from parts, most people are looking at a $800-1000 cost for a new computer to access the net, and a monthly cost of $15. The majority of the population will need a pretty good reason to spend that kind of money to get connected.

What is the justification for being on-line?
Worthwhile content is essential. When I turn on the radio, I know where to tune for Christian music, Rock & Roll, Classical, Country, Talk, News or whatever. I hear what I choose to hear. And I generally hear quality programming. On radio, the techies manage technology - professionals provide content. On the WWW, techies - for the most part - do the content programming. Can they offer compelling content for the majority of the population?
Unless you only use the Web as a hobby, getting satisfaction from the 'gee whiz' factor of the coolest HTML, or newest idea for a Web page...there needs to be a more measurable payback.

The information has to be useful.
For myself, browsing at random can be enjoyable pastime, but I don't believe it will be for the majority of the public. The potential user must be able to subscribe easily to services that fit his or her needs. An intelligent browser - or info-bots that do the searching for relevant information automatically need to be developed further. Content filters need to be perfected, and search engines need to be able to target usable information. Personally, I'd love to see a service that 'learns' what I want and constantly looks for new sources of that information. These 'bots' could suggest sites as I browse, or even serving up a summary of what it's found since you were last on-line.

Finally, if we are going to pursue universal access to the Net, and consider it incomplete until the majority of the population has access, then there are a few items we may need to accept.

Already there are those lamenting the numbers of people on the web. Will the sheer numbers of people make the Internet unusable? As the use increases further, will the wealth of useful information and shared research that has made the Net valuable become impossible to find amidst the clutter? Even now, the information available ranges in quality from wonderful, to poor, to completely useless. Advertising dollars -- which have started to support the Web -- will migrate to the most visited sites. Web developers will design similar sites to capture more traffic. The advertising dollar will follow the masses of users, and I am afraid TV has shown that the largest numbers of viewers are captured when fed pabulum, violence, or sex. As we cater to more and more 'technically challenged' individuals, the 'dumbing down' of the net even further will make for an even greater 'wasteland' than television, - possibly leaving us with the equivalent of the Citizens Band (CB) radio, virtually unusable for the purpose it was intended.

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