Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
The Internet is now a dominant tool for regular people
The Internet has succeeded in becoming a tool that many regular people turn to in lieu of alternatives for communicating and for finding information.
I've written a few essays that deal with the idea of computer applications that are "tools" (such as Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of the IBM PC, Metaphors, Not Conversations, and The "Computer as Assistant" Fallacy). I think that examining aspects of people's use of tools is important to see where our use of computer technology will go.

There's an old saying that "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Sometimes it is said in a derogatory way, implying that the person is not looking for the "correct" tool. For example, people used to laugh at how early spreadsheet users did their word processing by typing their material into cells, one cell per line, rather than learn another, new product.

I think a more interesting thing to look at is what makes a tool so general purpose that we can logically (and successfully) find ways to use it for a wide variety of things, often ones not foreseen by its creators. Tools that can be used for many different important things are good and often become very popular.

I have lots of experience watching the early days of the spreadsheet. Many people tried to create other numeric-processing/financial forecasting products soon afterwards, but none caught on like the spreadsheet. Most of these tools were tuned to be better suited for particular uses, like financial time-series. What they weren't as well tuned for were free format, non-structured applications. What were successful were later generation spreadsheets that kept all of the free format features, and added additional output formatting options, such as commas and dollar signs, graphing, mixed fonts, and cell borders and backgrounds.

The automobile caught on especially well here in the US partially because of its general purpose nature. First used for recreation, taking you out to the "country" (wherever that may be), it could also be used in rural areas to go into town or visit friends, for commuting in suburban and urban areas, visiting people at great distances, as part of work (such as the old family doctor), as a means for status or "freedom", etc., etc. In our large growing country, no other means of transportation met as many needs during the years when we built up much of society around it.

The Internet successes
Given those general thoughts, let's look at applications of the Internet. Where have they become accepted and entrenched general purpose tools among regular people?

The first and most obvious accepted use is as communications tool with people you already know. Email and instant messaging has gone way past the early adopter phase. For many families, communities, and businesses, it has become one of the dominant forms of communication. Email is up there with telephone and visiting, and more and more is displacing physical mail and fax.

This is pretty amazing. It took the telephone years to reach this level of acceptance for such mundane uses. Fax never reached it for personal uses.

The second most obvious accepted use is as an information gathering tool. Research such as that published by the Pew Internet Project comes up with numbers like these: Over 50% of adult Internet users used the Internet (most likely the Web) for job-related research. On any given day, 16% of Internet users are online doing research. 94% of youth ages 12-17 who have Internet access say they use the Internet for school research. 71% of online teens say that they used the Internet as the major source for their most recent major school project or report. (From The Internet and Education.) During the 2000 Christmas season, 24% of Internet users (over 22 million people) went to the Web to get information on crafts and recipes, and to get other ideas for holiday celebrations. 14% of Internet users researched religious information and traditions online. (This is for an event that happens every year of their lives.) (From The Holidays Online.) 55% of American adults with Internet access have used the Web to get health or medical information. "Most health seekers treat the Internet as a vast, searchable library, relying largely on their own wits, and the algorithms of search engines, to get them to the information they need." (From The Online Health Care Revolution.) Of veteran Internet users (at least 3 years) 87% search for the answer to specific questions, 83% look for information about hobbies. (From Time Online.)

Anecdotal evidence I've seen: Driving directions web sites like Mapquest are becoming a preferred tool for drivers, supplementing other forms of getting directions. More and more people research vacations on the Web before committing to accommodations or activities. 50% of all tableservice restaurants have web sites (and it isn't so that you'll order a meal to be delivered by Fedex). Search engines are very popular, and people will switch to better ones because they know the difference. Web site addresses are replacing 800 numbers in advertising and public service announcement "for more information".

At the Basex KM & Communities 2001 West conference, IBM Director of Worldwide Intranet Strategy and Programs, Michael Wing, presented some statistics that show where things are going. In surveying IBM employees' feelings about what were the "Best" (most credible, preferred, and useful) sources of information, in 1997 their Intranet was listed a distant 6th, after the top co-workers, then manager, INEWS, senior executive letters, and external media. In 2000, the Intranet was tied for first with co-workers, and the Internet (outside IBM) had moved into a place just below external media and senior executive letters.

For many people, the general Internet is on par with other, older public information sources, and sources they have relationships with or an affinity for (certain web sites, people through email, etc.) are trusted even more. The huge rush of people to the Internet during times of tragedy or rapidly unfolding events that are of deep importance to them shows this. When you get a call from a friend, or a co-worker pokes their face into your office with some news, an awful lot of people go straight to the Internet to learn more.

So, I feel that the Internet has passed that magic point for most users (which is over half of the US population who can read) where it is one of those tools that they already know how to use, and will depend upon to do all sorts of things, often instead of using other "better" ways of getting things done.

Where the Internet hasn't come that far
In contrast to these successes in changing behavior to favor Internet usage, I don't believe that buying on the Internet has passed that point for most people. Amazon and similar ventures that rely on purely electronic Internet-based transactions have failed to become the way we'll buy everything from toothpaste to lawn chairs. Some people do, but not the majority for any large portion of their purchasing. (Of course, for researching the purchase, the Internet is becoming extremely important.) A few categories, like travel, have broken out into popular acceptance, but not to the level of communications or information seeking.

Also, it seems that the Internet has not passed that point to be a major tool for passive entertainment. While it has become key to getting information out about movies (and credited for creating the main "buzz" to launch some), few people go to "watch the Internet". It is used to transfer music, but then only for songs the user wants, not as a passive receiver from a dominating "service". Just as TV is being affected by the new generations of people who wield the remote control to flit from program to program as they see fit on dozens or more channels, the "user choice" view of the Internet, much like the use for searching, is what you mainly find. Somebody else doesn't tell you what's interesting -- you decide and then go to the Web to look for more about it.

The implications for those with information that they want others to find, or who want people to communicate with them, is that they should include the Internet in their plans. For communications, an email address is a minimum, though for some types of interactions an instant messaging screen name is also important. For disseminating information, a web site is extremely important, as is being findable through various means (either in search engines and directories, and/or through other means of providing information, such as on printed material or in general advertising in any medium or links from likely places on the Web).

As we find over and over again about new technologies, users choose what they want to use them for. The purveyors of the technology can advise, but they can't control. We should learn from what they gravitate to.

The Internet has succeeded in becoming a tool that many regular people turn to in lieu of alternatives for communicating and for finding information. It has become a new, often-used tool in their personal toolbox.

What's good is that these two uses, communications and finding information, have proven to be ones for which people willingly pay.

05 Oct 01
As further proof and insight into the use of Internet searching as a general purpose tool, read Richard W. Wiggins' fascinating article about the evolution of Google during the 9/11 tragedy: The Effects of September 11 on the Leading Search Engine.

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