Kicking off the PC Expo trade show this week, America Online's Chief Technology Officer Marc Andreessen predicted in a keynote speech that in order to continue its exponential growth, the IT industry needs to start thinking like consumers.
Andreessen, dressed in a well-cut suit and looking trimmer and slightly more adult than he has in the past, talked about Internet usage, putting a new twist on the now-tired keynote theme that the Internet's growth is unprecedented. From AOL's vantage point, the company is seeing the Internet transform from a showcase for whizz-bang technology to a place where average people want to spend their time.
According to data gathered by AOL, 26% of its users now take their PCs with them on vacation to check their e-mail, and the average AOL user spends 55 minutes a day connected to the service. The goal of the average Internet user is to communicate with his or her friends, Andreessen said.
This fast-pasted growth of Internet usage is largely governed by Metcalfe's Law, Andreessen said. This law, coined by Ethernet inventor and InfoWorld columnist Bob Metcalfe, says that the value of a network increases exponentially with more people on it, because it becomes more useful, Andreessen said.
It is that law that has brought about a few killer applications for the Internet, which Andreessen calls tornado applications. These are programs such as e-mail, the Web, and instant messaging that become more useful the more people use them, and people use them more as they become more useful.
Instant messaging, in particular, is seeing extrodinarily high-paced growth, Andreessen said. It has taken just two and half years for instant messaging to reach 50 million users – largely because it is a radically simple idea.
"[Instant messaging] has given people a way to turn the Internet into a corner bar," Andreessen said. "It links back to what real, ordinary people like to do [on the Internet]."
Thinking about what ordinary people want to use the Internet for has to become a priority for technology companies to continue to thrive, he warned.
"The industry must transition away from technology; the focus will have to shift toward … what people want to do," Andreessen said. "The future of the industry and the Internet is reaching the much broader [customer base], technologists are not this market's [target customer] anymore."
In order to build mass-market products, companies need to think about how consumers behave, and Andreessen offered up a list of known consumer characteristics: They don't care about technology; they buy brands; they aren't systems administrators; the are put off when things are hard to do; and they are driven more by convenience than anything else.
"You need to look at the metaphor of the car – it's the maximum complexity level that people will put up with," Andreessen said.
In one move to facilitate convenience, AOL is announcing a deal with 3Com today to make AOL e-mail available from Palm VII devices, Andreessen said.
America Online Inc., based in Dulles, Virginia, is at http://www.aol.com.