INTERNET WATCH

For the Internet to pull in large numbers of home users and enter the mass market, it needs to be faster, cheaper, easier to use and more entertaining

More people were connected to the Internet in the UK last month than those who bought a satellite dish or hooked up to cable TV.

Internet connections in the UK rose by 46,000 in September, the highest monthly increase ever, bringing the UK total to 648,000. Year-on-year connections rose by 70 per cent, up from 380,000 in September 1995.

Despite the high cost of connecting, and the slowness and unreliability of access, Internet service providers continue to attract large numbers of new subscribers each month. However, the rate of Internet growth, while still high, has slowed from the 100 per cent-plus year-on-year increases seen in each month of 1995. There is a limit to the number of people with modem-equipped PCs, large bank balances, advanced computer skills and oodles of patience.

It is unlikely that the Internet, if it remains largely in its current form, will ever attract a significant percentage of users in their homes: it is simply too expensive, slow, complicated and, compared with other leisure options, far too dull. Information, as those who developed the CD-i realised in the nick of time, is not a mass-market proposition – entertainment is. Luckily for the Internet business, the current form of the Web is changing fast.

The big Internet change to emerge is TV-based entertainment. But it won’t come quickly and again, the technology is emerging well ahead of the content to support it.

The key to providing entertainment over the Internet is a big increase in bandwidth. Lots of bandwidth will allow real-time video and games, the cornerstones of in-home entertainment. Television, rather than PC, access is another important factor, as almost everybody has a TV while only 20 per cent of homes have a PC, and only three per cent of homes have a PC with a modem. TV access brings the Internet into the living room and out of the domain of the computer specialist.

Many of the world’s largest TV, cable and telecoms companies are now firmly focused on providing a more entertaining experience in the home. Most are intent on providing Internet access through TV.

There are several methods being developed: TV sets with modems built in; normal modem access but through the TV set; cable modems, a hybrid of modems combined with satellite delivery; and high-speed access over normal telephone lines using an advanced compression technique called ADSL.

The drive is now on to change the perception of the Internet as a glorified form of teletext to it being a viable interactive entertainment medium that is cheap and simple to use.

The TV Internet will provide access to movies, programmes and videos, as well as games, all on demand. It is likely that cable modems will provide the first real opportunity to bring on-demand entertainment to the mass market.

Already, over 2 million cable modems have been ordered by cable companies in the US. However, content is lagging well behind technical capability.

Critically, to attract large numbers of people in their homes, a new content area must be formed, requiring a minimal input in return for a highly entertaining experience.

Zenith Media

New Media, page 30

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