Internet for all

Dr Paul Twomey is the chief executive of the National Office for the Information Economy, and he'd like to know what you're doing online. He already has a pretty good idea, but he'd like to know more.

Twomey believes that the "rapid growth in the use of the Internet is transforming Australia economically and socially." To understand how rapidly that transformation is occurring, to identify any barriers which might impede it, and to determine how it is manifesting itself, Twomey is monitoring the nation's online habits.

Earlier this year, he released the first in what will be a quarterly report on the habits of those of us tapping into the information economy.

Already, the statistics demonstrate that Australia is the world's fourth most connected community after Sweden, Canada and the US. It also ranks fourth in the world in terms of the number of homes which are online, this time behind Singapore, the US and Sweden. We are only slightly less enamoured of the mobile phone, ranking sixth in the world.

In terms of raw numbers, more than 6 million adults were accessing the Internet by November 1999, double the number in the previous year.

One in four households was accessing the Internet, and predictions are that this figure will rise to one in three by November this year.

Big business has achieved close to saturation penetration with the Internet: more than four of five medium companies have Internet access, and almost half of even the small business sector has Web connections.

The Internet, however, remains largely a venue for the affluent. As Twomey notes, "The richer people are, the more they use the Internet." According to NOIE's research, "Those earning $75,000 or more are the leading income group accessing the Internet, at 64 per cent, while those Australians earning $24,999 or less are the least likely to be online, at 22 per cent."

This skew may be disturbing for sociologists, who are keen to see all members of society prepare themselves for productive lives in the new economy, but is an attractive trend for online retailers and companies offering online services, as the affluent Internet visitors are increasingly likely to be spending money online. According to NOIE's research, in the year to November 1999 shopping on the Net by Australian consumers grew 181 per cent.

US-based Forrester Research claims that one of the biggest categories of spenders are the millionaires of society, and the firm recently released a paper telling companies how to target their marketing campaigns at the online millionaires.

But as Twomey well understands, it is not the affluent's adoption of the Internet which will deliver the most significant societal change, but rather the time when online access becomes ubiquitous.

Twomey quotes research which indicates this may be closer than we think. According to investment analyst Schroders, it took four years for the Internet to reach 50 million users, as against 36 years for broadcast radio, 13 years for broadcast TV and 16 years for personal computers.

Visitors to the Internet World 2000 show in Sydney earlier this year were treated to various views of how even that penetration might develop. In the Pret-a-Portal show, models paraded wearing computer and communications devices - combinations that in some instances turned the model into a "walking Internet portal" - while others sported a headpiece which allowed the wearer to consult online maps while walking along a street.

Samsung has already developed (and released, in some markets) wristwatches which also act as mobile phones, and which will eventually be WAP-enabled for Internet access.

These applications are what might be described as the "pointy end" of the online age. Twomey's vision of a transformed society and economy encompasses a time when the population at large uses the Internet to pay bills; when it feels comfortable banking on the Net, or arranging a home loan; when governments, be they federal, state or local, allow citizens to access services over the Internet, and make access easily affordable by providing Internet access in community centres, schools and service centres.

The full economic benefits of the online age will only be unleashed when corporations conduct most of their transactions electronically, and internationally.

Total transformation will only take place when society is as comfortable about logging on to the Internet as it is about tuning out in front of the television.