I live in a building where people say hello to each other. They might ask about your day, but most of the time, they go about their business without interfering. One day, though, I hear a knock at my door.
It was my neighbor Kenneth, a cheerful man in his 50s. He had heard I was a “technology kind of person” and with a laptop in hand he asked me to help him setup an e-mail account — the first in his life, with the first computer he had ever owned.
“You’ve never had e-mail?” I said, surprised. “Ever?”
He just laughed and shook his head.
“I’ve never needed one until now,” he said, his smile turning into a grimace, “And I can’t make heads or tails of all this… Internet business.”
He needed guidance.
It turns out, Kenneth isn’t the only one that found the Web confusing and frustrating to use. In this uber-connected age, a surprising number of Luddites still eschew e-mail and browsing. But are they aging segment left behind by the digital divide? Or simply a growing population who finds the Internet too hard to use? And if it is, does it need to be simplified?
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which chronicles the way technology shapes our attitudes and lifestyles, about one-in-seven U.S. adults don’t use the Internet, at all — no e-mail, no browsing, nothing. Meanwhile, around seven percent of that segment says they just physically cannot get online or access a computer, and one-in-five of the group says owning a computer or getting service is just too expensive.
But the great majority of those abstainers — about 34 percent — says the Internet has become too difficult to use. Going online, they say, is a frustrating experience, and they worry about issues like spyware, spam and hackers.
According to Pew, the number of people who stay off-line because they find the Web too hard to use is growing, suggesting, perhaps that the Internet is getting harder to use, in general.
Pinpointing that question of difficulty, of course, is hard to quantify, since it’s subjective. But as I helped Kenneth — walking him through the processes of logging in, filling out online forms and just trying to get around the Internet — I saw multiple points of friction in his experience where something went awry.
I noticed the layout of Windows 8 — its strange hybrid of touch screen tablet-like layout and old-school Windows’ experience — confused him. Meanwhile, the sluggishness of some websites irritated him, while others, full of Flash and advertising, were excruciating at times, even on a laptop with more-than-enough hardware speed. Some things just didn’t work the way they were supposed to, either, compounded by error messages written so poorly, we couldn’t figure out what he needed to do to fix it. And, on a most basic level, the connection provided by his cable operator was wonky — sometimes lightning-fast, and other times slowed to a sludge-like speed. No wonder Kenneth was frustrated.
To me, the experience revealed the patchwork of influences that create a total Internet experience. There’s the foundation: the speed and robustness of the connection itself, as well as the operating system and hardware of the machines. Then, there’s the Internet and software, which can be further broken down into layers: the functions of a site, and its visuals like photographs and multimedia. Of course, security measures also make up yet another layer for consumers to navigate when they use the Internet.
Add in servers, hackers, power lines, cell towers, Web traffic and more to the mix and it’s almost a miracle that the Internet works at all. At any point, a poor programming decision, huge graphic, malicious virus or large attachment can make some part of the chain go haywire, sending someone like Kenneth running to a friendly neighbor for help.
In a way, the experience was eye-opening — how many people are true newbies to the Internet anymore? Even children begin their lives as electronic citizens, grow up handling tablets. And now, widespread smartphone use has given everyone simple and constant access to the Web. Theoretically, as we start on the Internet at an earlier age, the question of its difficulty should ease, and the idea of it being “hard” should become laughable.
And yet, according to Pew, that isn’t necessarily the case. Then, I thought, maybe difficulty isn’t actually related to the ability of using the Web. Maybe, it’s the inherent guts of the Internet itself — that patchwork of pipes, code and files that make up our information superhighway. As it turns out, peering under the hood of the Internet reveals a tangled, sprawling mess.
Websites, in general, are big and getting bigger. Not just in the number of pages, but by file size: the average page ballooned to up to 1.2-megabyte in 2012, according to HTTP Archive. At its current rate, pages will grow to 2-megabytes by 2015 — about half the size of an MP3 file. So what’s making pages so bulky?
Images are growing in quality and resolution. And, of course, who can forget advertising? As we gravitate towards the Internet, so do advertisers touting pop-ups and rollovers to compete for your attention and clog up your resources. Then, there are scripts for social sharing and analytics, among others, adding to the flabbiness. Video elements, too, like Flash are still popular, fueled by an insatiable desire for multimedia. As the Internet becomes the go-to place for entertainment — whether it’s Netflix streaming, YouTube videos or catching up on news — bigger and content heavier sites will follow.
For the most part, infrastructure has kept up with the bigger pages — faster broadband, speedier browsers and more powerful processors — but advances in technology often create problems, and better devices are pushing the Internet to bulk-up. When Apple integrated better displays in the iPhone and iPad, for example, sites started using more beautiful pictures and videos. That means bigger files, but slower sites, even under the best broadband and browser conditions. And the Web is failing to meet those razor-thin margins.
As people and companies demand more functionality, the process of putting together a site has become infinitely more difficult for developers. To appreciate how much more rich and complex the Internet as a medium has become, you only have to look at the evolution of Web design.
In the late ’80s and early-90s, webpages once consisted of text, links and images, laid out in a single column, against a plain, sometimes colored background. The basic building block of the Web was HTML, and the most sophisticated visual element may have been the now-maligned blinking text, or later, the animated GIF.
The animated GIF, of course, holds on — sites like Buzzfeed and Tumblr are nearly unimaginable without it. But its popularity showed early on how much people liked elements that added dimension — whether it was movement or color — to the flatness of the computer screen.
The Web took a major leap towards visual sophistication in 1995, when Flash and Java introduced full-scale animation and interactivity to the Web. Flash allowed sites to display little mini-movies, often with eye-catching graphics and zippy animations. Java made it possible to truly interact with sites: enter data or click a button, and get something back instantly.
Flash boosted the razzle-dazzle, and without Java, many aspects of the Web we take for granted today — e-commerce and gaming, for example — would not exist. But they were also clunkier technologies, slowing down load times, crashing computers and browsers.
By the late-90s, Web design, and the technologies used to create sites, accelerated in innovation. Thanks to the creation of CSS in 1996, sites became “responsive,” able to detect what device you browsed the Internet on, and how to tailor its appearance in response. But most importantly, it did it in a way that was relatively lightweight.
Later, programming languages like PHP, which connected websites to databases, allowed content to be rendered and updated in real-time and on-the-fly. We wouldn’t be able to check changes in flight time, stock quotes and weather on the Web without technologies like PHP, but they also added yet another layer of complexity to the nuts and bolts of the Internet.
But the expanded usefulness and visual complexity of the Web worked. By 1999, 280 million users were flocking to over 2.2 million websites. A mere four years later, by 2003, those numbers would explode, as 780 million users browsed over 38 million websites.
The sheer glut of sites, though, means webmasters have to compete for our increasingly overloaded attention spans, and the most successful sites often boast an emphasis on visual content like images and videos, designed to catch the eye to stand out. It’s these elements that are often large and heavy to load.
“Visuals on the web have only gained in importance over the years in terms of augmenting content,” Keight Bergmann, a Brooklyn-based digital and interactive designer, said. “It’s rare to find sites that don’t use photography and iconography to give greater context, even on heavily text-centric sites.”
But sometimes in the race for page views, sites can get bloated or overloaded with features they don’t need. “Often times, clients will feel certain that they need to have features that may not truly be necessary,” Bergmann said, pointing to the persistent use of Flash, despite its known limitations on mobile devices.
The result? A website that takes forever to load or crashes a browser repeatedly, leading to frustration from novices and experienced users alike, making it easy to think, “Who needs this anyway?” and click off right away.
As pages grow in size, people’s patience in browsing has decreased, leading to a gap in expectations and the sluggish reality on the screen. The result: you don’t stick around on slow sites. Researchers found that people don’t come back to a site if it’s 250 milliseconds, or 0.25 seconds, slower than similar sites.
“Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” Harry Shum, a speed specialist at Microsoft, told the New York Times.
Fatter pages — along with decreasing levels of patience and strained servers from a rise of smartphones and tablets — are creating a frustrating Web browsing experience. But the mobile Web is progressing in the opposite direction, getting faster as software and networks improve. As mobile improves — and cellular speeds up — a leaner, faster experience will offer a less cluttered and bloated alternative.
Mobile is the next frontier to transform the nuts and bolts of the Internet, and it’s returning to its roots to make the Web a lot simpler. Mobile is by nature lightweight and fast, and it’s increasingly the way we access the Internet. According to Pew, about three-in-five adult cell phone owners use their phones to go online, double the number in 2009, when Pew started to track mobile Internet use on devices.
In fact, one-of-five of all those adults do most of their browsing on their phones or tablets, eschewing desktop or laptop computers altogether, and that percentage is only going to increase.
“A majority of the public now owns a smartphone, and mobile devices are playing an increasingly central role in the way that Americans access online services and information,” Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew, said. “For many, such as younger adults or lower-income Americans, cell phones are often a primary device for accessing online content — a development that has particular relevance to companies and organizations seeking to reach these groups.”
Stripped-down mobile sites — and apps — are already are meeting the growing demand. For example, I use apps for Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, among others, to avoid clunky loading times and freezing browsers. And I’m not the only one who prefers them. According to Forbes, in 2013, mobile devices will pass PCs as the most common way to use the Web. And that sea change will alter, and give birth, to ways companies make money on the Internet.
But mobile poses challenges for the people who make the Internet, because it’s forcing them to figure out what we truly need from their sites, stripping away everything else, according to Bergmann. As a result, visitors who primarily access the Web through mobile get a simplified Internet: less visual razzle-dazzle, but much more streamlined and useful.
Some groups and companies deal with the challenge by creating a separate mobile site, a kind of “parallel” to the typical Internet site. That sometimes translates to a smoother experience, though it creates problems of its own. “Some mobile versions of sites strip away key information and then don’t give any option to view the full site, which is a major usability issue,” Bergmann said.
It’s more likely developers will integrate the mobile challenge into their work, into sites that work well on a variety of devices and settings. “Ideally mobile and browser-focused web design will converge,” Bergmann added. “There is a contingent of designers who focus now on building ‘responsive’ websites, which are basically designed to change how content is displayed based on the screen size of the device.”
With that approach, a website works elegantly on a variety of scenarios. But as Bergmann points out, it has its challenges. “Developing this sort of project is much more complicated to manage,” she said. Developers are just beginning to feel their way through the next frontier, and best practices are still being debated.
You’ll want to fasten your seatbelt — it’s going to be a bumpy, though interesting, ride.
More smartphone ownership, of course, fuels the shift to mobile. But how people use them will shape the next face of the Internet. On average, you spend around two and a half hours socializing on the phone, according to a Microsoft study. In addition, we watch more than 200 million YouTube videos on mobile devices each day — and those numbers will only grow.
When the Web took off in the early ’90s, a similar phenomenon plagued networks as bottlenecks created unbearably long load times. To ease the traffic, companies laid fiber-optic cables and developed algorithms to better distribute data around the world. Mobile devices can also lean on Wi-Fi, helping to ease cellular congestion, with platforms and browsers rendering data at faster speeds.
As the mobile Web improves, mobile advertising will take off as well. Today, they command a fraction of the revenue traditional campaigns take in. But as traffic changes, that’ll shift the way businesses monetize their audience. So does that mean the mobile experience will become polluted, too?
Perhaps. Sites are adopting HTML5 technology, for example, allowing videos to play across all browsers. So those flashing gizmos you hate may become a regular fixture on the mobile Web. But the biggest challenge to growth is security — mobile is more vulnerable to attacks than PCs, making smartphones appealing to hackers. But people, fortunately, understand that. For example, nearly nine-in-ten consumers prefer buying on a laptop or computer, according to eMarketer, instead of a handset. People like the ease of mobile, but they don’t trust it. So if companies want to make the most of mobile, they’ll have to overcome a serious trust hurdle.
Regardless, the proliferation of smartphones, with their lower costs and more points of access to the Internet is narrowing the so-called “digital divide,” and more people of different socioeconomic levels can jump on the Information Superhighway.
But what good is traveling on it when you can’t read the road signs, or the highway is clogged with traffic? Maybe a new divide is opening up, founded less on questions of access and social standing and more on facility and ease. I wonder if the developers who create the Internet think of people like Kenneth when they make their work, or if they assume everyone is highly sophisticated, with access to the best technology and a developed “eye” that can decipher cryptic icons or tiny buttons.
The designers I know like to complain that mobile sites are less visually compelling, but the move towards mobile is a good move to get the Internet back to basics — to serving information to the widest amount of people in the simplest way possible.
Since helping Kenneth, I’ve run into him in the driveway and around the building, and he’s kept me informed of his strange, winding journey through technology. He realized he hated his operating system and then exchanged it for one with an earlier, easier version of Windows. He got used to the experience of using his system, but still found it frustrating to navigate the Internet. Since then, he’s decided to buy an Android tablet, since the iPad was beyond his budget. But, of course, he then ran into apps — another wild and woolly world to navigate.
Last I heard, Kenneth still had the tablet, but he found that confusing too, so he says he’ll take a class at a community college or local library. He’s sticking with it, though. He has to, he said. Everyone has to do something on the Internet, no matter how hard it is to figure out. ♦