Creating A Better, Brighter, Smarter Internet

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-10-08
 
 
 

Creating A Better, Brighter, Smarter Internet


A child born eight years ago has never known a world without a World Wide Web. A 7-year-old came into this world along with the first online banner ad. Six-year-olds were born the year the Federal Networking Council bestowed the official definition "Internet" on a rapidly branching series of networks blooming with thousands of services.

Take a look at that terminology, and it becomes clear that even its architects were hard-pressed to encapsulate an entity depicted on network diagrams simply as a cloud:

" Internet refers to the global information system that - (i) is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons; (ii) is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and (iii) provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high-level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure described herein."

Tell a youngster that youre going to develop a toy or game based on this platform and he might echo the words of actor Tom Hanks in the movie Big: "Whats so fun about that?"

Whats fun about the Internet, of course, is not the Internet itself, but what kids can do with it - chat with friends, create animated Web sites, visit a global library of words and images, download music, watch a cartoon or play a game.

And what the most interactive generation in history thinks is fun on the Internet may be the best indicator of what the network of networks ultimately becomes. So its no wonder that increasingly, but carefully, companies are reaching out to the generation who will redefine the Internet, making "tweens" - kids between the ages of 8 and 12 - what many consider to be the hottest marketing demographic in the interactive world.

Their appetite for interactivity and communications is, after all, like some Newtonian force that will shape and be shaped by the rapidly accelerating networks, ultimately determining which companies will perish and which will prosper.

Check Out the Toy


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To start, one might look no further than childrens toys.

"The impact of the Internet on our children will, I believe, become more significant in the long run than any other technological breakthrough in the 20th century," said Peter Eio, then chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America (now the Toy Industry Association), two years ago. "When properly used, it challenges our skills and our intellect and adds a new dimension to individual learning never before available to a mass audience."

When Eio made those comments, one of the most popular toys was the $30 Hasbro Furby, which can learn 200 words in English or another language, allowing each Furby to "adapt" to its owner. Furby was so competent in linguistics that the National Security Agency banned the toy from its building.

While the Furby earned the classification "interactive," it was not connected to the online world. But with a little imagination, its easy to picture a Furby linked to the Internet through a wireless connection that would allow 24/7 communications.

Gaze slightly beyond the horizon and that kind of gimmick looks like childs play. Researchers in artificial intelligence and robotics are thinking way beyond talking toys. And scientists and mathematicians delving into computers using quantum mechanics or genetic DNA may someday deliver a machine that will make the supercomputer look like an abacus.

In the meantime, however, hit the IntelPlay Web site to see what kids are doing - and what the future may have in store. A product called the Computer Sound Morpher is a handheld toy that children can use to record their friends voices and download them onto a PC, where they can add sound effects and distortions, remove or mix words, animate with talking faces, then e-mail the final products to friends.

And former junk bond financier Michael Milkens Knowledge Universe offers five new Leap Frog educational toys that connect to the Internet, including the Turbo Twist Speller that plays word games with kids to musical accompaniment.

Even toddlers get Internet toys, like Neurosmiths MusicBlocks and Little Linguist blocks, which introduces kids ages 1 and up to new languages.

"Instead of placing the child in front of the computer, now we can take the computer chip and put it in a childlike environment," said John Sosoka, co-founder of Neurosmith in Long Beach, Calif. For the older kids, Cybiko of Bloomingdale, Ill., boasts the first digital, wireless handheld entertainment and communications computer aimed at the youth market. Offering wireless chat, interactive multiplayer gaming, free downloads, a music composer, a graphics editor and other diversions, the colorful Cybiko made its debut for last years holiday sales rush with financial support from AOL.

Its no surprise that companies are taking tweens so seriously. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, the average teenager spends more than five hours per month online. Nearly half research goods and services online, and 15 percent buy online. By 2005, Jupiter predicts, tweens and teens will spend $4.9 billion on the Internet and another $21.4 billion on products researched online. In four years, Jupiter forecasts, the online population of kids ages 2 to 12 will reach 26.9 million, almost three times the 10.4 million kids online in 1999.

While that demographic represents a promising market in itself, the greater value in targeting teens and tweens comes in development of products and services with an eye toward their adult years. One Web site thats zeroing in on that adult-transition market is Bolt, designed for the 15-to-24 year-old-age group.

"This audience has always been very, very critical for markets to reach because its right at that sweet spot where teens are becoming young adults," Bolt CEO Dan Pelson said. "Theyre a critical component for every consumer site out there."

Studying Tweens


Instead of relying on advertising to support its site, Bolt earns a living selling marketing data and analysis derived from communication among its young audience members to Fortune 500 companies like AT&T, Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor, Procter & Gamble, Sony and others.

Offering an online chat venue for every subject from sex to sodas, Bolt is able to interpret the views of those members who communicate anonymously, but apparently honestly, about issues that are important to them.

To verify its findings, Bolt uses an online focus group of teens selected on the basis of various psychographic categories, such as alpha teen, achiever, alternative, assimilator and awkward. Of those categories, the thoughts of alpha teens - defined as leaders who have the greatest influence on their peers - are the most highly sought-after.

"Alpha teens are very highly networked, and they tend to be the ones marketers want to reach," Bolt spokeswoman Elvin Can said.

If Bolt is reading its data correctly, the current generation of teens and young adults are already redefining content, that amorphous category of online information and entertainment that stretches from streaming media to hypertext.

"In a lot of ways, content will become context," Pelson said. "Teens are not using the Internet to consume traditional content. Theyre entertaining themselves by communicating with each other."

To get their conversations going, Bolt members pose questions for each other, such as: "Whats your favorite animal?" or "Do you stereotype people?" On the same page, they can take a survey comparing the Nissan Xterra to the Ford Escape, or tell AT&T how often they change the ring tones on their wireless phones and which ones are their favorites.

Rather than feeling exploited, Pelson said, the younger generation feels catered to. If true, that would represent a major gap in how the generations feel about market research.

"The people who are most fearful of targeted marketing tend to be adults," Pelson said. "They see that as a threat to their privacy. But teens are much more savvy than that. If someone can develop a product that suits their needs, they see that as a benefit and a utility."

Extrapolate that finding to a new medium such as interactive TV, and you can see why the idea of targeting individual homes for advertising holds promise. Already, AT&T is testing a "directed advertising" effort in Aurora, Colo., that groups 30,000 categorized viewers into marketing segments. Using SpotOn technology from ACTV, the system segments cable homes according to three categories: those with or without children; households with incomes under $50,000 annually; and households earning more than $75,000 per year.

While privacy advocates are appalled at the ability not only to target individual viewers for television commercials, but to gather information on those households as well, Pelson sees a teen market waiting to embrace the technology.

"Lets assume it takes two or three years before broadband and interactive television becomes widely available," he said. "It will take two or three years after that before marketing designed to fit that medium is really in place."

The oft-promised surge in interactive TV could come together over the next five years as expanding broadband, new digital technologies, antipiracy protections and a receptive market converge, according to Cahners In-Stat Group. In the panoply of Internet-enabled appliances, Internet TV will lead the market with a 115 percent growth rate, researchers say.

Until interactive TV warms up, the wireless world offers a certain path to the heart of the teen and young adult market, Pelson said. Many of Bolts audience members communicate through wireless devices and have developed their own shorthand for keeping messages brief.

Researchers at Cahners In-Stat say that kids and young adults ages 10 to 24 are likely to rank as the fastest-growing market for wireless voice and data services in the U.S. during the next several years, growing from 11 million in 2000 to 43 million in 2004.

Many companies trying to break into that market are following the giveaway model developed by Apple Computer and using schools as learning labs for new products.

Cybiko, for example, teamed up with Mitchell Middle School in Mitchell, S.D., providing an 8th-grade journalism and yearbook class with its wireless communications devices. Students can use Cybikos text editor applications to enter homework questions and then send them to their teacher.

Texas Instruments is learning about the young consumers who use its calculators in the classroom. The company recently developed a hybrid graphing calculator and personal digital assistant (PDA).

TI reads the youth market in large part through orders for certain kinds of chips, spokeswoman Gail Chandler said. Lately, TI has seen a greater need for chips that can be used for Internet audio.

One trend TI has observed in the youth market is a growing demand for "convergence devices," Chandler said. For example, one of TIs customers is about to release a digital camera that also provides Internet audio.

To capitalize on the market, companies should follow the lead of Cybiko, offering the fashion-conscious teens a variety of phone shapes, colors, faceplates and accessories, said Becky Dierks, director of Cahners In-Stats wireless services.

"To boost wireless data use among youths, carriers offer specially targeted content, including sites providing shopping, news, games, entertainment, education and other types of youth-oriented content," she said.

Naturally, North American carriers are watching the progress of Japanese telecommunications giant NTT DoCoMos first commercial third-generation service in support of mobile videophones. Dubbed FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access), the service could rapidly expand the services available to users.

Learning or Exploiting


While the Internet promises to become the major channel of communications in the future, many companies are leery of talking about targeting the youth market for fear of appearing exploitative. Concerns about manipulation by potential abusers and the possibility of straying onto adult-oriented sites also hamper engagement of this demographic group.

Among the organizations watching over the content available on childrens Web sites is the Childrens Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Last month, for example, CARU worked out changes to shore up weak spots in the sites offered by Louisville, Ky., Visionary Resources, whose Y-Generation.com site attracts both tweens and teens.

Another site cited for ineffective age screening was YOUtopia.com, which offers tweens and teens an online currency for taking part in activities on the site, such as interactive chat, contests, e-mail and games; the currency can be redeemed for free gifts. YOUtopia, with sponsors such as AŽropostale, American Greetings, Ericsson, Lucky Brand Jeans, Nintendo of America and Playtex Apparel, also provides targeted marketing research.

One factor that makes young people such ideal research subjects, according to Jupiter, is that most of them have discretionary time and the patience to learn about new technology. Some are actually using the technology in school.

"You cant call them early adapters; theyre just adapters," said George Anderson, president of the online market research exchange IdeaBeat Creative Services and the father of two tweens and a tween-to-be.

"My wife and I actually find ourselves having to limit the amount of computer time they have," Anderson said. "We have to tell them to stop sending instant messages and to get off the latest gaming thing."

Anderson believes some of the devices and features baby boomers shrug off as irritants and intrusions will be eagerly accepted by his childrens generation. Constant communications, multiple channels, interactive television and other Internet-enabled devices will likely mushroom in popularity.

But will tweens and teens, as they reach adulthood, still have the patience and the appetite for ubiquitous communications?

"Maybe instead of 100 messages coming at them, theyll want 50," Anderson said. "But theyll still want them. I think the habits we pick up as kids, we take with us lifelong, and I dont think the use of technology is any exception."

As tweens and teens grow up and enter the work force, many of their toys will become tools that will drastically improve productivity. The steady growth in wireless technology, videoconferencing and cheap computers will reduce the need for geographically clustered employment centers, though that will likely continue, experts say.

Meanwhile, the development of job source information sites like Monster.com will mean the alpha teens of today will probably see more opportunities coming their way.

What Lies Ahead


In a report on kids on the Internet, Jupiter identified five critical factors that define the online experience for this tween and teen age group: communications such as chat, e-mail, greeting cards and instant messaging; online ubiquity arising from a growing array of devices and services; multitasking - the tendency to surf the Web and send e-mail while watching TV; rich media such as online games, music and video; and user interface and navigation ease of use.

Those critical factors are similar to the Internet of the future envisioned by giants in the industry who are already paving the way for another new economy.

Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy once declared that the Web we refer to is actually six Webs. According to Hellmuth Broda, Suns chief technologist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the six could evolve in the following patterns: The Traditional Web or Near Web will improve with better computers, keyboards, screens, cables, phone lines, modems and local area networks. Eventually, you wont have to install software or devices to see or hear content.

The Entertainment Web or Far Web will link devices with ambient intelligence, eliminating the need for CDs, DVDs and videotapes. Instead, consumers will buy a license key for the content they purchase and software systems will let people get access to their music from home, hotel room, rental car or airplane seat. The content would be available on a wristwatch, PDA or cellular device. The system could even make the light in your TV room turn green for a horror movie, or rose for a romance, an effect that can be accomplished as the Web-based entertainment service allows your home entertainment system to automatically detect whats going on.

The Pervasive-Computing Web or Device Web will link machines talking to machines, using Java-based applications. Wired or wireless, the devices will be able to communicate on either a centralized-service basis or peer-to-peer basis. Sensors will move to the forefront of input devices as useful intelligence becomes available to IT systems as well as to the Web. Suns Broda suggested some interesting possibilities, such as T-shirts that measure pulse rates and glucose values, then transmit them via the network to physicians. The Internet-accessed networked home is already a reality.

The E-Commerce Web will handle business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions. It also involves heavy traffic between machines.

The Pocket Communicator Web or the Here Web follows you via pocket communicator. As the services increase in sophistication, you can use pocket communicators to locate restaurants or look up cultural activities, and keep tabs on the latest information about your next flight or other travel arrangements.

The Voice-Activated Web would be accessible through a device worn on your lapel into which you could talk. Your voice would securely identify you and enable immediate access to information and services. These services will know about your preferences and options and will help you easily navigate.

As executives at Sun explained, the Internet will have arrived when you no longer notice it. For example, when you turn on the lights in a room, you simply think: "Turn on lights," not "Activate the switch to release electrical current to the lamp."

Despite short-term setbacks in the economy, Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy points to what he terms the "Net Effect" as a powerful force in technological and economic progress. The Net Effect is a product of the rapid growth in processor speed, bandwidth capacity and the value of networks.

Lucent Technologies Bell Labs, meanwhile, is exploring the outer limits of bandwidth, recently calculating that it is theoretically possible to send about 100 terabits of information - or roughly 20 billion one-page e-mails - simultaneously on each strand of fiber.

"The research suggests that as demand for services such as high-speed Internet access continues to grow, and bandwidth-hungry applications such as video-on-demand become increasingly popular, optical fiber will be able to keep up. It will even be able to provide services not yet imagined," Bell Labs officials explained.

For todays tweens and teens, the growth of bandwidth will have implications as great as the growth in wireless services, Bolts Pelson said. Meanwhile, portability will increase as the clunky monitors on kids desks give way to versatile new devices.

At IBM, for instance, researchers have created a thin, flexible transistor that could someday be used to create a computer screen that can be rolled up, possibly even worn. At Bell Labs, researchers are working on a flexible plastic sheet that could replace the familiar liquid crystal displays common in calculators and other devices.

Engineers at Microsoft Research are considering the possibilities of MEMS - microelectromechanical systems - machines so small they cant be seen with the naked eye. Costing only a few cents each, they would be tiled together to form vast, high-resolution video displays as thin as wallpaper or implanted into the human body to analyze illnesses and dispense medicines.

Last month Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates vowed to keep research funding high as the company pursues the new frontiers of interactivity.

"Regardless of the current economic climate, we remain convinced that computer industry and government research organizations must continue to invest for the long term," Gates told researchers in Redmond, on the 10th anniversary of Microsoft Research. "Without basic research, we cannot create the technology foundations for future generations to build on."

For Microsoft and Gates, the Internet of the future will allow users to analyze information on "a universal canvas" with devices that respond to touch and voice instead of traditional typing. Among the goals at Microsoft Research are designing computers that are better able to understand their users and tasks; developing vision technology that will allow tracking and 3D scene reconstruction; and endowing devices with "telepresence" that will enable users to feel as if they are present at a faraway event.

Just as baby boomers reaped the rewards of Cold War brainstorms that evolved into the Internet, todays kids could enjoy the benefits of subrosa research into quantum computers and networks that may establish not only a new economy, but a new reality.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technologys celebrated Media Laboratory in Cambridge, researchers are exploring the meaning of identity in the age of the Internet, developing virtual reality "tele-actors" that can interact with the world or represent a group or individual (picture a news anchor). They also seek to quantify and define human intelligence and common sense, traits that they hope to bestow on a robot. So far, researchers into artificial intelligence say they have only succeeded in replicating the intelligence of an insect.

But take a look at Media Labs sponsors - some of the most powerful companies in the world - and it becomes apparent that the researchers are not just testing out plot points for science-fiction novels.

"Humans are growing into machines, and machines are growing human," Media Lab researcher Alex Pentland observed. "The blending of human and machine is happening at all scales, most obviously as digital technology moves onto - and into - the human body, and as computers gain emotions and intelligence."

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