STRIKE UP THE BAND WIDTH

Byline: Peter Braunstein

Come on, come clean. The “handheld device” you still use the most is a plain old phone, maybe even with that curly umbilical still attached. The “chip wars” you relate to pit Lays against Wise. Wasn’t “DSL” the model name of that Mercedes you almost bought? And “convergence”: That becomes meaningful when the highway department guys have shut down two lanes — again — along your route during the morning commute.
You are not yet one of The Digital Elite; maybe you’re not even close. You might be feeling a bit left behind, personally and professionally, and are worrying that they are pulling away faster all the time.
Well, at least you’re not alone.
The proliferation of dot-com TV ads and nonstop parade of tech-stock-related news all make it seem that everyone not only is Internet-savvy, but has got this e-commerce tiger by the tail — everyone except you, that is.
But the fact is, less than half of all U.S. households even have Internet access. Internet research and consulting firm Forrester Research predicts that it will be three years before Internet penetration crosses the 50 percent mark, driving the number of paying subscribers to Internet service providers from a current level of 51 million to 78 million by 2003.
America Online, with its newbie-friendly (the Elite would say infantile) interface, has been primarily responsible for luring the previously unwired; AOL boasts 10 times as many subscribers as its nearest competitor. But insurgent ISPs like NetZero, which offers advertiser-supported free Internet service, have also drawn thousands of new users to the Net.
Globally, the Internet is an even more minute phenomenon. According to the Computer Industry Almanac, there will be nearly 350 million Internet users worldwide by year’s end, or only 57 per 1,000 people. The wired global population is expected to grow to 765 million users by the end of 2005.
Last year, Americans made up 43 percent of all Internet users worldwide, but that figure is expected to decline to 28 percent by 2005, as Internet use increases dramatically in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Nonetheless, the world, it seems, will remain decidedly unwired in both the short and long term.
So, being at least somewhat clueless about the online world is actually still a majority condition. But don’t feel too smug; there are entire sectors of society and the economy — from the tech world to universities — where virtually everyone is wired.
Of course, the wired and the unplugged still converge now and then, and often they even have fruitful relationships, but by and large there’s no glory — and very little social clout — in not knowing much about the Internet. E-mail was trendy back in ’94; now it’s as brick-and-mortar an institution as the answering machine.
Even though most Americans still aren’t wired yet, that hasn’t prevented Silicon Valley from pushing the latest technological determinism in the form of broadband.
Dial-up users, whose 28.8 or 56K modems ensure a certain amount of online gridlock when surfing the World Wide Web, constitute the vast majority of Internet users. But many dial-up subscribers, tired of lengthy download times, are being lured to the faster data delivery of broadband — anywhere from 1 to 8 mbps, the difference between cruising the Web in a Porsche as opposed to a Hyundai.
Industry analysts expect more dial-up users to defect to broadband in the coming years, while neophytes might be introduced directly to broadband through their cable companies (thereby skipping the dial-up phase), so that the broadband community will increase from its current six million subscribers to 26 million by 2003. What all this means is that keeping your dial-up connection for the next couple of years won’t place you at a hopeless disadvantage, but it’s fast becoming economy class.
Meanwhile, tech industry pundits are often at odds about the promise of broadband. Doug Keeley, President of ICE, an e-commerce services firm, counsels many of his clients to take their time before rushing headlong into broadband service.
“Broadband will bring us a lot more speed, but it’s also going to bring us a lot more crap a lot faster,” Keeley said. “There is so much clutter out on the Internet right now, basically we’re going to have a lot of higher-bandwidth junk.” Indeed, sometimes surfing the Web with a 28.8 connection can be such a slothful experience that it’s no wonder that one starts to fetishize speed of data retrieval as an end in itself, overlooking the actual content that you’re getting.
Still, industry insiders believe that the fashion industry in particular needs a broadband medium to fully actualize itself online. 3Dshopping.com is one example of an online fashion site that uses broadband-dependent rich content to create an online experience that closely mimics, and in some way improves, the physical shopping experience.
Using three different technologies, visitors to the site can view clothing in a 360-degree rotation, as if standing in front of three mirrors. There’s a rollover zoom that enables high-resolution close-ups of fabric, texture, buttons and other details, while another feature allows shoppers to see the outfit in different colors.
“Thanks to broadband, our site is stopping traffic in front of merchants’ products at a rate four times greater than conventional net traffic, and that’s incredible for retailers,” said Lawrence Weisdorn, 3DShopping’s chief executive officer. “Mail order returns are typically between 25 and 33 percent. Because of our system, we’ve reduced return rates to less than 10 percent.”
At the same time, Weisdorn realizes that he can’t survive on broadband visitors alone, and he’s busy compressing his 3-D technology for viewing by the dial-up majority. In cases like 3DShopping, the difference between dial-up and broadband access is more than academic; Weisdorn notes that visitors accessing the site with a 56K modem tend to view 8.5 pages per visit, versus 28 pages for those with speedier broadband access.
Industry analysts agree that broadband may be more essential for the success of online fashion sites than for many other content providers. “There’s a physicality to the merchandise itself that’s been difficult to capture either online or in mail-order catalogs,” says Richard Kent, vice president of The Phillips Group, an Internet consulting firm. “Greater bandwidth with allow you to feed your measurements into the network, see yourself fitted in the clothing. It would essentially enable a virtual-reality experience of how the clothes would look on you.”
Keeley concurs. “Fashion is all about emotion, and the Web has had a really difficult time capturing that. It’s the biggest single weakness of the Web experience right now — it’s not emotive. Bandwidth will change that, because it makes for a faster, more real-time experience.”
Are you getting it yet?