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iPad highlights changing internet

by Paul Hudson
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iPad highlights changing internet

The anticipated launch of the iPad in the UK later this month is more than merely a commercial success for one über-cool brand, it is a defining moment in the evolution of the internet. Indeed, the launch of this much-anticipated follow-up to the iPhone may herald the death of the internet as we know it.

First created in the 1960s as a means of inter-disciplinary academic communication, the “internet” today has become defined not by the technology that underpins it but by the myriad activities it enables, from streaming live news to downloading music.

First with laptops, then smart phones and now the iPad, our physical connection to the “internet” has weakened but our interaction with the online world it provides access to has increased exponentially and changed the way people live their lives.

As the boundaries of the online world expand over the next decade we predict that the “internet” will merge into the background, becoming like electricity providing the power behind devices and tasks rather than being an entity in its own right. The iPad marketing spin, for example, promotes the fact the device is always connected to the online world without ever mentioning the internet specifically.

In short, our meaning and understanding of the internet is set to change beyond recognition. This is more than a philosophical debating point: the path to the “always-on” world will change the way we interact with large organisations on the web and even our friends and family.

It is already happening. Two pieces of research conducted recently by Intersperience, Digital Ageing and Internet on the Move, graphically show this change beginning to gather pace. The studies throw up exciting new possibilities for companies to reach these new digitally-active consumers – but also reveal that most organisations will fail to fully exploit the potential because their understanding of how customers are using their online services bears little relation to reality.

The iPad is a germane example of this disconnect between the perception and reality. While many technology reviewers have been lukewarm about the device, consumers have flocked to Apple stores. An estimated 500,000 iPads have been sold since it US launch in April, forcing the company to postpone its global roll-out until this month.

The “experts” have been far from enthralled in reviewing the iPad because it does not conform to one of their neat views of what constitutes a mobile device: it is not a phone or a laptop. However, customers do not think in those terms, they focus on the experience a product delivers.

The aspirations of internet users are changing in a way that, at present, only Apple of the big technology manufacturers seems able to read properly. The iPhone popularised use of the internet on the move, spawning many clones in the process, and the iPad represents a new assault on the home market.

Typically the home has been the preserve of fixed line internet accessed via a desk top PC. Its use was initially transaction based, mainly for paying bills or searching for very specific information, and online time was limited by high open-ended charges and slow dial-up connection speeds.

Entertainment and social networking are now favourite reasons for going online and being tied to a PC on a desk in an upstairs room is now seen as restricting. The old notion of “sessions” on a computer, completing one or two tasks then logging off, is being replaced by the desire to have the internet as a constant companion to link seamlessly to friends, check information, play games or watch movies.

Our Digital Ageing study identified this trend early and found 22% of the adult online population are ‘Optimistic Rangers’ who rely on wi-fi internet and multi-task with ease.

The iPad, and the numerous wannabe devices that are likely to follow if the experience of the iPhone is an accurate guide, will be popular with this group because it meets their desire for an entertaining and social experience online.

Another group of ‘Undefined Followers’, who emerged from our Internet on the Move research, are also likely to figure prominently in the next phase of internet development.

Undefined Followers are the biggest group of mobile internet users and offer the most growth potential for companies targeting new online consumers. They are more tentative about the technology but enjoy using mobile devices and are excited about what they could bring to their lives.

As Apple is proving, grasping the changing nature of internet use is not merely a philosophical talking point: it can mean commercial success for companies that “get it”.

We anticipate mobile internet will reach its predicted level of penetration of 48% in the UK by 2014 but to grow beyond that will require many organisations to rethink their online strategies.

Successful mobile internet applications solve problems – providing maps, finding nearby clothes stores or catching up with football results and train timetables. Social media works online because it has created a new form of communication that is both immediate and free.

However, mobile internet is used much less for purchasing, largely because of worries about security. People simply do not like keying in personal details while out and about for fear of losing their phones and having them hacked. For that they continue to rely on fixed line devices like PCs.

The lesson from these few examples is that the form of a company’s online presence must be adaptable and change with the format. Simply shrink-wrapping a sprawling website onto a tiny smart phone screen will not work. It will be seen as impersonal, difficult to navigate and slow.

On the other hand, dedicated smart phone apps and pages on social networks provide a better fit with the realities of modern life and individuals’ needs. By offering assistance in everyday lives brands can build trust with users and, over time, drive traffic to their fully-optimised websites where they can transact via fixed line devices.

The optimisation of this dual online world is not only reliant upon getting the format of the product mix right – understanding changing behaviour patterns becomes ever more important, as does providing exceptional customer service.

The internet is becoming central to many aspects of our lives, being used to access and present information across a wide range of situations and locations – all without a PC in sight. In years to come desktop computers will play an increasingly minor role at home, more probably confined to offices or studies.

The Internet will not be a device as such, but will become the equivalent of electricity running through many different types devices and applications as well as the glue binding together everyday lives at home at work and on the move.

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