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Telecomputing touches masses

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, February 4, 1997

Telemedicine. Distance learning. Telecommuting. It’s a fact: Most of the new terms used to describe the brave new world of telecommunications focus on the interests and activities of professionals — e.g., physicians, teachers, knowledge workers. The ordinary consumer, one might think, has been left out of the “transition from pots to pans” — i.e., from plain old telephone service to pretty amazing new stuff.

Think again. One of the best indicators of the broad and deep impact of the revolution in telecomputing (the combination of computers, software, television and telecom networks) is the unprecedented growth of Internet and World Wide Web users. Recent news reports tell us that if we thought of these people as an “audience” rather than a “user,” the Internet would rank in the Top 10 of the Nielson ratings.

On-line services are now playing to a mass market, not to a bunch of geeks and technoids. Example: America On-Line now has 8 million subscribers and is likely to have 10 million by the end of the year. By contrast, the audience for network television programming is sharply declining.

There are many ways to judge the magnitude of this otherwise invisible revolution. One is to go to your favorite bookstore or newsstand and count the number of magazine titles dealing with an issue or subject. I do this from time to time, kind of a poor man’s way to survey public interest in a topic or issue. Well, last September my favorite bookstore carried five magazines devoted exclusively to the Internet or the web. Last weekend, that same bookstore carried 17 magazines — 12 new titles in less than six months!

Another way to judge is from your own experience. This past Christmas I purchased an “Internet appliance” for my 80-year-old mother, who lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s made by Sony and sells for a fraction of the cost of a PC. It’s called “WebTV,” a simple, small, easy-to-use device that you can hook up to your TV and to a telephone line and access the Internet and the web — and send and receive e-mail. It took me less than 15 minutes to get things set up and running — from the time I opened the box to the time we were on the home page of the Center for the New West (http://www:newwest.org), which I used to show my mother what the web was all about. We then surfed to theRocky Mountain News (http://www.denver-rmn.com) and then on to literally dozens of other sites that she was interested in — all in the first 60 minutes.

I then showed her how to use the e-mail system. We set up a “username” and a “password” and by day’s end she had connected with people she knows all over the U.S. because, for a couple of years now, she has been saving e-mail addresses from her stash of letters and business cards.

She stayed on the system for about five hours, and was then horrified to learn that she had missed a lot of Christmas-day phone calls. So, on December 26, she promptly called Bell South to install a second telephone line so she could surf the net without missing phone calls from her friends. Since then she has been e-mailing and web-surfing every day — and staying connected all day, another reason why massive new investment is needed to re-engineer America’s telephone infrastructure.

A few days later, she bought a larger TV so she could read her e-mail from her kitchen, and she told me last weekend that she has not watched “regular TV” since Christmas — this from a news junkie who always had the TV tuned to CNN, PBS, CNBC, or a news talk show.

So when people say the telecomputing revolution is not affecting them, just look around. It is having an enormous impact on how we live and learn and how we connect with other people.

Right, Mom?

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