MARKETING FOCUS: Wire we waiting?

The adoption of IT in the home is slower than people think. Consumers are waiting to see what it can offer before committing, writes James Curtis

The adoption of IT in the home is slower than people think. Consumers

are waiting to see what it can offer before committing, writes James


Techno-fear is not a new thing. Remember the hi-fi shop sketch from Not

the Nine O’Clock News? A man goes into the shop and asks for a

gramophone. The sales assistant collapses in laughter and proceeds to

terrorise the customer with a torrent of hi-fi jargon: ‘So what do you

want with it grandad? Woofers? Tweeters? A bag on your head?’

The 90s version of the same sketch would most likely take place in PC

World: ‘How many RAM do you want in your memory grandad? One? Two? Four


The jargon is more ridiculous and just as confusing. What is worse is

that IT seems to have become so central to the way we live and work that

it is almost a social taboo to be seen as technologically illiterate.

Things may be changing. We are in the midst of an IT revolution, but

that does not mean there is limitless demand for technology. It is

becoming clear that the UK consumer is less and less impressed with the

claims made by the marketers of IT. People will not buy unless they can

see tangible benefits from the technology on offer.

Predicting consumer attitudes to new technology is a huge challenge for

marketing, especially when it comes to its use in the home. Who would

have predicted that range cookers would thrive in the age of the

microwave, and cinema continue to boom despite home video?

A new survey,, jointly administered by the University of

Leeds, the Independent Television Commission and Ogilvy & Mather,

suggests that while IT is undoubtedly transforming the way we work, it

is not making an impact in the home. Far from being ignorant of IT

advances, consumers are choosing to wait and see what real benefits new

IT can bring to their domestic lives. Sheila Byfield, who co-ordinated

the study at O&M, says it shows ‘a few people who have a lot and the

masses that have very little’.

The study, designed to investigate the impact of new media,

IT and other social changes on human behaviour, will run from now until

the Millennium. Around 5000 homes are taking part, representing over

9000 individuals answering detailed questionnaires and keeping

behavioural diaries. The first results, on attitudes to and ownership of

IT in the home, were released in September.

It found that 62% of the country are not thinking about buying a

computer, the main reason being that they do not see the need for one,

but also that they are too expensive. It also found that only 32% of

people find computers easy to understand and that 76% of the national

workforce do not use a PC regularly.

Michael Svennevig, research fellow at the University of Leeds on, says the study reveals a strong ‘wait and see attitude’

among the UK population. ‘The problem is that people can’t see the

immediate benefits of having a PC at home. They know that PCs have

transformed the workplace but in the home it is a different story. It’s

a lot of money to spend just to see what having a PC is like.’

And once it is there, what is it used for? Half of all PC buyers say

their children’s education is the principal reason to invest, but only

35% of computers in the home are used for this purpose. In practice, 61%

of them are used for games.

IT underclass

This gap in the perceived image of IT in the home and its actual usage

was underlined by another recent report on the subject, commissioned by

Motorola. It concluded that almost half of the UK population felt it was

being left behind by advances in technology, creating an IT underclass

disadvantaged in the job market and society. It found that 40% of

respondents do not regularly use computers, the Internet, or mobile


Apart from the cost, the key drivers inhibiting computer usage in the

home is the complexity of the software and the image of the PC as an

anti-social one-on-one medium. Only 17% of computers are kept in the

living room, with 46% situated in studies.

Computer designers are going to great lengths to break down consumer

preconceptions of how the PC is used in the home. Some are adopting the

sleek black category codes of audio and TV in an attempt to position the

PC as a must-buy consumer electronic good.

With the spread of cable and the onset of digital TV it is not

necessarily useful just to consider home technology in terms of PC

ownership. Many of the things performed on a computer will soon be able

to be done through the TV set, immediately making the technology more


Alex Letts, chairman of the SMI Group, says it is already possible to

access the Net via cable, and in September 1997, Sky’s home TV package

will include access to the Net. He says: ‘The Net is not driven solely

by PC usage any more. Soon there will be no definitive solution; you

decide you want to use the Internet and then choose your medium.

‘New modem technology will make the experience more satisfying. At the

moment it’s a nightmare and is still two to three years away from being

a defined product that will change the way we live, shop and bank.’

And it is not just the Internet that will change the way we use the TV.

Digital and interactive TV will also have a big impact.

David Brennan, vice-president of research at Flextech Television, one of

the sponsors of, says: ‘TV will not remain a passive

broadcast medium as it has for the past 50 years. Digital TV has

opportunities that are not here now. Anything is going to be possible

and it’s not a question of it catching on; it is a fact of life that

digital TV will be the primary form of TV distribution in the next


Brennan argues that it is up to the industry to market these

technological changes in a way that highlights the benefits to the

consumer. ‘It’s not just about having more channels, because people feel

they have enough already. It’s actually all about convenience.’

Video on demand and the opportunity to create a personalised TV schedule

are just two of the many possibilities he is talking about. Far from

being discouraged by the findings of the study, Brennan is pleased to

see how effective communications can help speed adoption. He also argues

that far from there being a great divide between usage of IT at work and

at home, the office provides the opportunity to experience the benefits

of the equipment before using it at home.

Gillian Kent, group marketing manager of consumer products for

Microsoft, agrees that IT companies have to change the way they market

their products. ‘The industry has to get over the fear factor. All the

consumer wants to know is what it can do, not what chip it uses.’ She

says that as the market matures into a battle between software

publishers there will be more emphasis on brand identity and simplifying


Cyber society

In the US, adoption of new technology in the home is much faster. Robert

Grupe, on-line communications manager for Text 100 in Seattle, says the

size of the country makes it easy for people to get cut off from their

families and communities.

Online services and the Internet have provided the infrastructure for

these groups to stay together. ‘It’s like a cocoon society in which many

people are physically cut off from their roots. But new media allow

communities based around family or special interests to stay together.

These are very small market segments that cannot be served by


Grupe cites the examples of online local newspapers that can be accessed

from anywhere in the world, and university football games that, by using

real-time audio, can be transmitted live via the Internet.

With New Labour committed to using IT to improve education, the

accessibility of IT to the public and its usage in the home is going to

become a hot political issue as the general election draws near.

At the moment it seems UK consumers need convincing that IT has the

potential to improve their lives.


* 62% of people are not thinking about buying a personal computer. 64%

of this group say they do not see the need for one.

* 76% of the national workforce do not use a PC on a regular basis.

* 27% of people have a computer at home, but only 18% of this group

regularly use them.

* 51% of home PCs are bought for child education. 35% of these are used

for education; 61% are used for games.

* If modernity is measured by the ownership of electronic products in

the home, with the highest possible score at 30, then 20% of households

score just one point.

* 2% of people have a PC/TV.

* 17% of PCs are kept in the living room.

* 18% of people have a mobile phone.

* 72% of people carry some sort of financial plastic and 57% have at

least one loyalty card.

* Of those thinking of buying a computer: 51% are for child education;

9% for accessing the Internet, and 3% for e-mail.

* Unfamiliarity, lack of understanding and worry about product

obsolescence are the main barriers to new technology uptake.

* 41% of households view seven or fewer TV channels; 35% view between

eight and 12; 24% view 13 or more.

* People are using more technology in public places: shopping malls 25%;

airports 16%; museums and galleries 12%; railway and bus stations 12%;

public libraries 11%; shops 10% and hospitals 3%.


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