In 2000, the Net goes mainstream

Mainstream.That's the buzzword used by Net watchers when they talk about what's in store for the Internet in the year 2000.

Mainstream.

That's the buzzword used by Net watchers when they talk about what's in store for the Internet in the year 2000. During the last year of the current millennium, people of all age groups and income levels will be coming online for the first time and changing what used to be a haven for techies into an integrated part of everyday life.

"The Internet in 1999 was like television in the year 1951," said Paul Saffo, president of the Institute for the Future. "In 1951, TV really started to take off, and in subsequent years it just dramatically increased its reach. That's what we'll see with the Internet in the next few years."

Online research firm Jupiter Communications predicts 60 percent of the U.S. population will own a computer in the year 2000, and more than 49 percent of households will be online. The number of men vs. women online is also on track to even out. In fact, by 2001 the number of women online is expected to slightly exceed the number of men.

Thelma and Louis go Net
The rise of women online was a key first step in the "mainstreaming" of the Net. When the final tallies for the 1999 holiday e-commerce shopping season come in, women are expected to have played a huge role in increased revenues. Some companies are already noticing a difference.

"This is something we've been seeing for a while," noted Gary King, chief information officer for BarnesandNoble.com. "Last year our top-selling titles tended to be technology and business titles. This year it's been best-selling novels, children's books and Harry Potter. It's becoming more like the retail mix."

In addition to the rise of women on the Web, Tim Bajarin, president of consulting group Creative Strategies, Inc., points to a drop in average income levels as an important component in creating a more democratic Web.

"From 1997 to 1999 we saw average yearly income levels beginning to drop down to as low as $32,000, and now we're seeing people in the $24,000-a-year range," said Bajarin. "That's indicative of costs going down."

High-growth areas
Lower costs are also likely to help boost the number of seniors coming online, since they are traditionally on a tighter budget than younger people and more likely to think of a computer as a luxury item rather than a necessity. Bajarin calls seniors "the biggest untapped market on the Internet" and predicts that "we'll see a lot of movement to go after them."

Analysts also think that affinity portal sites, or sites that aim at specific groups, will do well. Auction sites, gambling sites, grocery delivery sites and online utilities, including calendar sites and photograph publishers, were cited by some as potential hot areas for 2000. And analysts like the prospects of online gaming, fueled by Internet-capable game machines such as Sega's Dreamcast.

While analysts differ on just which of these areas will be guaranteed winners, most think the Net is poised for mainstream acceptance akin to the way automatic teller machines revolutionized the banking industry just a few years ago.

"All of a sudden, we woke up and couldn't live without them," said Giga Information Group's Rob Enderle.

Unlike previous years, where analysts generally focused on one particular trend or area of growth, the predictions for Internet trends in the year 2000 run the gamut from online gaming to continued growth in high-speed DSL and cable modem access. Even though not all the experts agree on what will really take off in 2000, they do agree that the wide variety of predictions is likely due to the increased diversity of the Internet audience, and that the days of predicting the preferences of a typical Internet user are over for good.