Westminster, Colo. -- Broadband connectivity brings many
subtle and often intriguing changes into those households fortunate to be subscribers.
In a recent study, the Broadband Innovation Group of
MediaOne Group Inc.'s MediaOne Labs documented the online and computing habits of
high-speed Internet-access subscribers using a next-generation Internet appliance.
This peek into the future revealed that always-connected
Internet PCs and tablets are making an impact on the habits of subscribers, often in
"The way people have thought about convergence has
shifted," said Anne Page McClard, a MediaOne Labs design anthropologist.
"It's certainly shifted for us."
With 2.8 million cable-modem users projected by Jupiter
Communications Inc. by the end of the year, learning how the household uses its broadband
services will become more and more useful.
For example, until recently, nobody knew that
tomorrow's Jane Jetson could be listening to live MP3 streaming audio on a portable,
Internet-connected device while lounging on a space deck.
MediaOne Labs chose a multifunctional compact device to use
in its Detroit study -- Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America Inc.'s "AMiTY
VP," a 9.8-by-6.7-by-1.4-inch PC with a 7.5-inch passive-matrix screen, Windows 95
and a stylus for entering data that are interpreted through handwriting recognition.
The device was chosen because it could run Windows 95 and
support streaming media. Tracking software was installed to monitor Internet use.
The study was conducted in five different suburbs with 13
households participating. Households were connected with a cable modem and a "Proxim
Symphony" wireless base-station device with a range of 100 feet.
A total of 28 users were tracked in the study: 23 adults,
four teen-agers and one pre-teen. None had seen a PC tablet device before. The tablets
were used for seven weeks.
"Using a tablet computer created a radically different
experience for these people," McClard said. She found that the Web tablet affected
both social home dynamics and PC-usability issues.
McClard said tablet users changed the way they talked about
their computers. The tablet, she added, was viewed as a "liberating" device that
allowed a different type of "sociability" in contrast to a desktop PC, to which
people felt "chained." But individuals preferred the PC to perform work-related
tasks and to play "heavy duty" games.
Households with children tended to have the primary
computer in a publicly accessible location within the home, often converting the dining
room to a computing room. Households with young or no children tended to leave the primary
computer in the den or office.
Perhaps the most dramatic change observed was that
"multitasking really skyrocketed," McClard said. People took the tablet along
with them when performing chores in the home.
In one case, a woman listened to streamed audio on her
tablet while folding the laundry and another time while bathing her child. In another
home, the tablet was used simultaneously with a TV broadcast of an auto race. The streamed
video of the race was viewed during TV commercials, providing uninterrupted race coverage
for the viewer.
Another simultaneous user spontaneously e-mailed a comment
into a news show -- something they said they otherwise would not have done if they had to
remember the e-mail address.
People also responded more frequently to URLs (uniform
resource locators) seen on commercials while using the tablet.
Overall, households used the tablet about one hour per day,
spending 55 percent of the time online, according to Patricia Somers, user-interface
designer for MediaOne Labs.
Because of the relative difficulty of entering text into
the tablet, chat -- mainly instant-message applications -- and e-mail were not used as
frequently as some households would have liked.
Streaming video and audio comprised popular uses of the
tablets, with archived talk radio as one of the top streaming choices. Three of the top 10
sites visited were streaming-audio sites, Somers said. The relatively poor quality of the
tablet's passive-matrix screen was apparently not well-suited to streaming video.
Somers found that 85 percent of the sites accessed by
tablet households were visited by one person, indicating very little overlap in surfing
In one household -- a couple living in a small apartment --
an interesting dynamic was reported regarding simultaneous PC/tablet use. The woman was
looking for homes online sitting at her PC, while the man relaxed on the couch with the
tablet. Finding a home of interest, the woman would "instant-message" the URL to
the man on the couch so he could check it out.
While the time spent online with tablets increased about a
half-hour per household, the tablets also served to resolve some contention about who gets
to use the computer, Somers said.
Despite some usability issues -- including difficulty
typing, poor handwriting recognition and subpar screen quality -- the wireless nature was
important to people, with some wishing they could take it away from home to stay connected
and to continue using instant messaging.
But some people -- including one man with big fingers --
were happy to give the tablet back to the researchers.
In an earlier study, the group concluded that the always-on
aspect of broadband-data access extended a home's "circle of use" of the
computer beyond dens and home offices and into the kitchen and family areas. Internet use
became more utilitarian and integrated into family members' lives for homework,
shopping, checking weather and simultaneous PC/TV use.
A second study completed late last year focused on the
dynamics between the PC and TV in 10 Los Angeles-area households with high-speed Internet
access. The study group spanned income-level demographics with a diverse ethnic mix.
All of the households in the study had placed the TV and PC
in the same approximate area of the home, MediaOne Labs design anthropologist Ken Anderson
said. Both devices became so-called family objects, with the PC moving, as in the earlier
study, into the home's family center.
In dial-up households, the family often watched television
while waiting for the Internet-connected PC to dial up and display Web pages, McClard
In homes with high-speed, always-on connections, the
reverse was true -- the focus was on the Internet and the PC. While the TV was on and its
sound carried beyond its physical location, people "waited for something to call them
to the TV," such as a newscast or favorite show about to air, Anderson said.