Not caught up in the Net

If you thought the UK was all wired up, you'd better think again, says Clare Newsome
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If all the hype is to be believed, PCs are sprouting in every home, we're all surfing the Net, and everyone's gearing up to steer on to the information superhighway from the comfort of their sofas.

But an extensive study conducted by the market analyst IDC shows that this is not the case. It found that only 25 per cent of UK households own a PC, 65 per cent have no plans to buy one, and just 10 per cent are thinking of making a purchase this year. Bad news on the "wired generation" front as well - on-line services have not taken off as predicted, and accessing the Internet does not even register on the list of most popular PC usages, where word processing and games dominate.

It appears that many PC vendors have misread the needs of the home-user market, wrongly crediting them with similar requirements and levels of skill as business users.

This explanation is backed up by further research conducted by Packard Bell, whose current status as the world's fastest-growing PC manufacturer is almost wholly due to its success in the consumer market. Packard Bell UK commissioned its own survey, taking a sample of 200 users from the buyers of its PCs over the Christmas period. This snapshot of the UK reflects many of IDC's findings, notably that only 10 per cent of users were accessing on-line services, but also probed deeper into who was buying PCs and why.

It found that the PCs were being used for a wide variety of applications, with 82 per cent of respondents expecting to use their machine for at least five distinct functions, and 96 per cent regularly using six or more packages. This is very different from business users, who typically use only one or two applications.

Because of this diversity of uses - from working at home, to entertainment, education and personal finances - consumers may need PCs with considerable power and functionality, not low-spec machines that vendors are unable to sell to business users.

Jamie Muir, managing director of Packard Bell UK, believes the low take- up of on-line services and Internet access is also the result of vendor misconception; these systems are currently much too complex for novice users. "If they can get on to the Internet, what are they going to use it for? They don't know where to go, there's no index - it's something you have to be very smart to use. For the average consumer, until the interface becomes much simpler and there are good indexing tools available, the Internet won't realise its potential."

Despite this situation, he predicts that by the end of the year all consumer- oriented PCs will come with a fax modem, as users will see it as a checklist item, even if they do not know what to do with it.

Another finding of Packard Bell's survey confirms that there is a vast, untapped market of users out there - notably women of all ages, and 20 to 30-year-olds of both sexes. It seems girls have a "toys for the boys" perception of PCs; they start to use PCs at a younger age than boys, but begin to lose interest some five years earlier. Whether this is because girls find other things to do, think the games and other applications too male-oriented, or just can't get near it because their dad or brother is hogging it (in 79 per cent of households the primary user was male) is unclear.

But Mr Muir says one of the most startling findings of the Packard Bell research, and what offers most hope for the PC becoming as ubiquitous as it is hyped to be, is what he calls the "religious fervour" that users develop for their PCs.

"Once you've shown these people a quicker, easier and more enjoyable way to do the things they want to do, they're hooked. It's like giving a washing machine to someone used to taking their clothes down to the river and bashing them against the rocks - there'll be no going back."

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