Although the older market may be under-represented by much of the Gen X-loving Web world, by no means is Third Age the only business aimed at mature surfers.
Ad-supported SeniorCom Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., covers much the same turf with community services, chats and news. And the American Association of Retired Persons produces a brochure-like site with thousands of pages.
Yet for sheer momentum, Third Age bypasses its competitors. What makes the wired senior crowd a niche to watch online? They're better educated, wealthier, and likely to be the demographic to kick-start online shopping, industry watchers claim.
"The demographic of the over-50 crowd online will be more appealing to online advertisers than offline," says Peter Storck, senior advertising analyst with Jupiter Communications.
With the average age of Web surfers at 35 today, the over-50 audience is still a small market online. Still, once they're online, they log onto the Net as much as younger users do.
Jesse Rabinowitz, a retired 72-year-old professor at the University of California, has been online for several years and accesses the Web nearly every day for about 30-40 minutes.
For Rabinowitz, the Web is most valuable as a research source, but he regularly reads the New York Times online, particularly for movie reviews, and uses the Web to look up times for local showings.
"If planning a trip, I would usually try to get theater, music, and art programs in the cities I plan to visit, London or New York," Rabinowitz says.
In fact, in a recent survey co-sponsored by search engine Excite Inc. and Third Age, the older demo was found just as likely to use the Net on a daily basis as younger people.
"The ones online are highly engaged, very social, and are high-income, well-educated and computer-savvy," says Jim Desrosier, executive vice president of Excite. Another survey by the New York demographic research company Find/SVP found that the over-50 wired group actually tended to be slightly more active in some areas.
Some of the findings from Find/SVP's spring survey of 1,000 Internet users:
"The older demographic has been ignored throughout the Web because people see it as a young person's game," says Matt Kinsman, an analyst with new media research company Cowles/Simba Information. "But seniors will be a very large market," particularly as people currently in their 40s and 50s who are exposed to the Web at work move closer to retirement age.
EVERY 8 SECONDS, A BOOMER TURNS 50
The math is simple. The 50-plus market represents more than $1.6 trillion in buying power and is expected to increase by 29 percent over the next five years, according to Packaged Facts. And every eight seconds another baby boomer -- that omnipresent group of 79 million Americans -- crosses the Big Five-O threshold, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Of the estimated 35 million U.S. Internet users, there are 5.5 million adults over 50 that are online, and that number is expected to nearly double to 10.7 million by 2002, reports Jupiter Communications.
"It's not surprising that people are looking at this market," agrees Colleen Bertiglia, director of affinity programming at WebTV. "They are the most under-represented segment of the PC market."
About 32 percent of WebTV's 175,000 subscribers fall into the over-50 demographic, and in March, WebTV expects to launch thirdage.com as an anchor in its "Explorer" content area.
So while on regular TV it may be more glamorous to chase the "Friends" crew than the "Touched by an Angel" bunch, on WebTV aging boomers may be the next hip thing.
"No matter what other trends you look at," says Furlong, "there are more older people."