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, futura.com, 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 futura.com 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
futura.com, 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.
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 futura.com, 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
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%.