Column: Net numbers show wide awareness

Four out of five New Zealanders are aware of the Internet and an estimated 500,000 aged 10 years and older have access at home, school, or work.

The most recent figures from AGB McNair confirm what most of us knew already--Internet usage is up in 1996. Four out of five New Zealanders are aware of the Internet. An estimated 500,000 New Zealanders aged 10 years and older have access to the Internet at home, school, or work and almost 200,000 of them have accessed the Internet in the past month.

Just the fact that these figures are available represents an improvement over last year. In the past, everyone was making Internet usage estimates based on anecdotal evidence, guesses and ISP statements--not exactly what you would call unimpeachable sources. AGB McNair's service, called web.research@agbmcnair, has been operating for almost a year and complements its regular measurements of TV viewing and print readership.

Its professional analysis gives marketers, advertising agencies, and industry professionals quality information on which to base marketing and communications strategies. It is now getting to the point where the Internet is becoming a larger component of IT, customer service and marketing strategies.

The reasons for this year's growth of the Internet are easy to find. Telecom's Xtra has been running colour ads for the Internet in newspapers, Voyager, Clear.Net, and others have been making major efforts to improve the levels of service, ISPs like Ihug and Sinesurf have been keeping the pressure up on prices and almost every new computer is "Internet-enabled", making the initial connection a piece of cake. It has become a buyers' market.

The amount of information about the Internet has also increased tremendously. Local publications like Wired Kiwis, NetGuide, The Internet Plain and Simple and Getting Your Business On the Internet provide down-to-earth advice for getting connected. And for those more technically adept, as an example, the University Book Shop in Auckland stocks more than 30 titles on Java programming alone. Even if nobody else is making money on the Net, traditional publishers are doing quite well. But the upshot is that the Internet is no longer the domain of nerds and cyber-punks--it is accessible to the masses.

As more and more people have access to the Internet, functions such as email become even more useful. Last year, you were somewhat limited with whom you could correspond. Now, with the added numbers, email is an accepted business tool. Emailing spreadsheets and word processing documents is cheaper and infinitely more useful than faxing the same documents. Email hasn't changed the way New Zealand does business, but it has made doing business more efficient.

Content has also caught up with the hype. Instead of just electronic brochures, the World Wide Web now offers up-to-the-minute local news, weather, and sports, sharemarket listings, online databases and other useful information. And specialised areas such as travel, real estate, and entertainment are finally approaching a critical mass that make them useful instead of merely a curiosity.

The effects are starting to support each other. As more content comes online, the incentives for Internet access increase. As more people use the Internet, the more reason to offer your goods and services online. Also, with advances in programming tools and services, sites are becoming more attractive and interactive.

It's hard to predict how Internet usage will develop in 1997. Chances are commercial growth will continue apace while home and personal use will slow somewhat. However, if general content continues to improve and provides a clear benefit for online access, growth at all levels will continue to explode. In any event, 1997 will be an exciting year for users and providers both.

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