Nevertheless, Britain has a surprisingly high level of PC ownership: 38 per cent of the UK population aged between 13 and 65 have at least one computer at home (7 per cent have three or more). Furthermore, more than one in ten of us is likely to buy a computer for home use within the next 12 months.
Statistics like these, as much as optimistic forecasts about future web commerce, help explain why this week WH Smith purchased the Internet Bookshop for pounds 8.8m and why the London Stock Exchange has established a new website as part of its pounds 1m "Get Share Aware" advertising campaign.
The new Share Aware site aims to give private investors easy access to company news and share prices. Following an agreement between the Stock Exchange and 10 licensed data vendors who rank among the UK's leading providers of financial information, the website will offer share prices (mid, bid and offer prices) for all UK-listed, AIM (Alternative Investment Market) traded and SEAQ International companies.
You may also access company announcements transmitted via the Exchange's Regulatory News Service. The RNS carries all the announcements made by companies which are deemed to be price sensitive - those likely to move the share price. The information is available free of charge, subject to a 20-minute delay.
The website lists companies that offer share investment services and which are "member firms" of the London Stock Exchange. To help you identify and contact organisations offering the services you are interested in, you can search on a number of categories including by region and by service offered, whether execution-only or for those firms offering discretionary or advisory services as well.
As part of the Share Aware campaign, the Stock Exchange has also published two booklets to guide potential private investors: Being a Shareholder and A Guide to the London Stock Exchange - What You Need to Know. You can view these on the website and order hard copies free of charge.
The Share Aware website runs alongside the London Stock Exchange's existing site which will continue to provide general information on the workings of the stock market in the UK. The wisdom of launching a campaign to attract more private investors at what appears to be the tail-end of a long bull- run in the market may be questionable. However, any initiative that seeks to boost investor understanding deserves some praise.
Among London Stock Exchange member firms, the newest arrival on the Internet is investment manager and stockbroker Carr Sheppards. Its site includes pages explaining the firm's services, including charity and pension fund private-client portfolio management. It also details Carr Sheppards' unit trust, investment trust and PEP management services.
In addition to the financial information available and an interview with the firm's chief executive, Fred Carr, the site links to the charity the National Gardens Scheme. Carr Sheppards sponsors the NGS book Gardens of England and Wales since 1994 and is backing the charity's website to boost its fund-raising capabilities.
Share Aware: www.share-aware.co.uk
London Stock Exchange: www.londonstockex.co.uk
Carr Sheppards: www.carrsheppards.co.uk