The broadband-innovation group at MediaOne Group
Inc.'s MediaOne Labs has conducted several formal surveys into the behavior of its
MediaOne Express (now Road Runner) subscribers.
And the research -- conducted by the company's two
design anthropologists, Anne Page McClard and Ken Anderson -- demonstrated that the
"always-on" aspect of cable Internet services has spawned some significant
changes in subscriber lifestyles.
Among the findings:
Study participants used the Internet four times as
much as a corresponding study group of dial-up users. MediaOne Express customers accessed
the Internet for a weekly average of 22.5 hours, while dial-up users logged on for about
The always-on component of cable Internet access
made looking for information more convenient than dialing up each time. Non-computer users
often converted to frequent Internet users, with the always-on feature serving as a
catalyst. In dial-up households, non-computer users tended to remain so.
Always-on helped to integrate the Internet
experience into household tasks such as checking weather, shopping, planning events,
sending e-mail and complementing TV broadcasts.
Cable-modem users accessed the Internet sporadically
during the day, often with short sessions of "walk up and use." One household
used the Internet on 17 different occasions on a single day. Monica Marics, director of
MediaOne Labs' broadband-innovation group, referred to this tendency as
"snacking on the Internet."
Women and children were predominant users of
"Primetime" use differed between dial-up
and cable-modem users. Dial-up participants logged on to the Internet primarily during
evening hours, while cable-modem subscribers turned to the Internet at all times of the
day -- especially in the morning -- to check e-mail, weather, etc.
Subscribers moved PCs from the den and spare bedroom
to "common-use" areas, such as kitchens, reinforcing the term,
"kitchen/family-room complex." This finding lends credence and real-world
application to the spate of "Internet-appliance" products coming to market.
In cable-modem households, the Internet was often
used in conjunction with other devices, such as TVs and telephones.
Conclusions were based on interviews, observations and
tracking data from cable-modem subscribers in Greater Boston and dial-up users in the
Denver area. In all, 16 families (11 cable-modem and five dial-up) were involved.
Selection requirements for cable-modem users were:
Participants had to have children in the home full- or part-time, and they had to be
MediaOne Express subscribers for at least three months to make sure the service had been
incorporated into daily routines.
According to Marics, one purpose of the study was to find
the answer to the question, "What does broadband living mean?"
For many, it means accessing the Internet instantly for any
number of tasks. Instead of watching the cable-TV version of The Weather Channel, for
example, an always-on user could access TWC's Web site and quickly check out the
local weather, skipping the cycle of TV coverage and the wait for local information to be
Anderson found that one big change in the perceptions of
cable-modem users was that the Internet seemed to be "closer" to the user --
sites weren't something one "went to," but something one immediately
clicked to. The phrase, "At our fingertips," was used consistently by study
One study subject commented, "Switching between
[Microsoft Corp.'s] Word [word-processing software] and the Internet was like
changing channels on the television."
The Internet's "invisibility is really what makes
it powerful," Anderson said.
McClard pointed out that in her interviews, she asked what
was more important -- the constant connection or the speed. While participants constantly
talked about the speed of their service, McClard found that "always-on meant more ...
and most of what people were doing on the Internet didn't require that much
Instead of downloading large files, McClard and Anderson
found that participants were mostly sending and receiving e-mail and accessing Web sites.
"Multitasking" became commonplace. In one
instance, a Web user, while on the phone with a spouse, was able to precisely locate a
storm passing through the area on the Web, determining that the evening's softball
game was safe to proceed with. Other "multitasking" events included sending
e-mail during TV commercial breaks and accessing Web sites while cooking dinner.
The invisibility and instant availability of the Internet
increased usage as participants found more utility in the Web, enhancing their PC skills
and, in some cases, moving from casual computer users to daily users -- or, dare we say,
Consequently, the PC became a "family resource,"
and it found its way in many homes into the places where the family spends the majority of
its time together: the living/family room and kitchen. Conversely, Anderson and McClard
found the PCs of dial-up users to be isolated in dens and bedrooms.
A few cable-modem families even squeezed their complete PC
setups into corners of the kitchen. Of course, finding room for a tower-sized PC, monitor
and printer can be difficult.
One scenario that the research team discovered was a mother
preparing dinner and helping her children with homework while they accessed the Web on a
PC in the kitchen.
While the typical PC form factor is not yet conducive to
kitchen use, there are a few products -- both in prototype and coming to market -- that
serve to transform the kitchen into a multimedia, Web-surfing heaven.
One is the "Screenfridge," from Stockholm,
Sweden-based Electrolux Group. Debuting at a trade show in Germany earlier this year, the
Screenfridge is a combination refrigerator/computer with a touch-screen display on the
The touch screen uses a virtual keyboard, and family
members can leave each other video mail or e-mail. An Internet connection allows for Web
surfing or external messaging. A recipe database contains hundreds of recipes. TV and
radio come standard. And surveillance cameras can be networked into the computer.
According to Electrolux press manager Folke Hammarlind, the
Screenfridge is in prototype stage, and the company is waiting for infrastructure support,
business plans and partners to crystallize before the unit goes to market.
Specific Internet connectivity for the Screenfridge has yet
to be worked out. But Hammarlind said Internet connectivity is a natural for the kitchen
appliance, noting that there are a number of tasks people want to do on the Internet
without going upstairs to the study to spark up the PC.
For the typical family, he added, the refrigerator is a
central part of the home. It's not only the place where food and drink are stored,
but also where post-it notes, calendars and shopping lists are displayed.
Hammarlind pointed out that the Screenfridge has several
advanced capabilities. Equipped with a bar-code scanner, the unit can keep track of
grocery items inside. A radio transmitter can then send a signal with that bar-code
information to a store.
"We're looking at working together with service
and information providers," Hammarlind said, adding that the company is still lining
up partners and its business model.
Much smaller in scale, but packing plenty of functionality
into a small box, is CMi Worldwide's "Advantage 2000." The unit combines a
128-channel cable-ready TV, stereo audio CD, DVD, "one-touch" Internet dial-up
access and an Ethernet connection.
A countertop version is due in the fourth quarter of this
year, while a flip-screen version (for placement under cabinets) is due in the first
quarter of 2000.
Unlike today's PCs, which may not fare well in a
fast-moving kitchen environment, the Advantage 2000 includes a washable greaseproof and
shockproof keyboard and remote.
"The kitchen is the room in the home where decisions
are made," says Heidi Mikkelsen, project coordinator for CMi Worldwide. The Advantage
2000 will eventually be outfitted with networking capabilities to control other
While Mikkelsen couldn't say when the Advantage 2000
would be "broadband-ready," she did note, "We're talking to people in
every industry out there."