The Challenge of Multiple-Device Access

I know that Halloween is over, but if you didn’t find enough to scare you, hop on over to developer.webtv.net and download the WebTV viewer for your computer. Fire it up, point it at your web site, and prepare to recoil in horror when you see what it does to your beautifully constructed site. Arrghhhh!

To be fair, WebTV’s gotten a lot better at rendering HTML, but it can’t escape the fact that TV resolution is 544 x 372 and that the quality of text and graphics rendered on the TV screen is inferior to what you see on your computer monitor. Couple that with the fact that most folks are going to want to navigate your pages with a simple remote control, and you’ve got a pretty scary situation if your customers are visiting from their TVs.

Before you go and “pooh-pooh” this scenario (and what are you doing “pooh-poohing” anyway?), you’d better realize that, according to the trends, in the future more and more folks aren’t going to be logging on to the web from their PCs. And while approximately one million people right now are using WebTV, the majority of users are going to be accessing the web from their TVs and appliances in the foreseeable future, which means that we’re going to have to change the way we think about web sites and web marketing.

In its June report, eTForecasts predicted that by 2005, more than 70 percent of all Internet users will be using Internet “appliances” for some or all of their online access. This doesn’t necessarily mean WebTV, either. These “appliances” can include cell phones, PDAs, stand-alones, digital set-top boxes, and other forms of non-PC access. And let’s not forget about the upcoming Internet access module for the PlayStation 2!

Out of all these devices, it appears that TV-based access and cell phones clearly are going to lead the way. Strategy Analytics reports that 56 million homes worldwide will be using digital TV by the end of 2000, a number that is expected to jump to 221 million by the end of 2005. Currently 29 million users in the United Kingdom are signed in to digital TV, and Forrester Research’s report “Broadband Content Splits” states that most of the impact in future broadband Internet development will be seen on devices other than the PC. As for mobile, the Research Centre of Bornholm predicts that nearly half of all western Europeans will have Internet access from their cell phones by 2003.

What does this mean for web marketers, and what should we do to deal with this trend toward more universal access through a variety of devices? Here are a few observations:

  1. The web is becoming part of your customer’s lifestyle and is no longer an end in itself. A recent American Express survey found that while many people shop online, most prefer to actually buy in the physical world where they can interact with human beings. Does this mean that e-commerce won’t work? Of course not. But it may mean that you need to gear your sites to respond to what people do want: customer service and product information available in a variety of formats.

  2. Separate content from design: Think XML and content management systems. Yes, this is pretty geeky stuff, but if you’re building new sites, you’d better start thinking of ways of divorcing content from design for delivery in a variety of formats.
  3. Prepare for convergence. Actually, convergence is already here — look at the experiments at the Weather Channel — but more is on the way. If you think you’ll be able to keep TV and the web separate in the future, you’d better think again.
  4. Don’t put all your (virtual) eggs into one basket. Not every medium is perfect for every application. The web is great for complex interactions and data collection. Mobile isn’t, but it is good for short information retrieval. TV is a good medium to add additional content to showy video, but a voice portal might be what you need when your customers don’t have access to anything but a phone. Try, test, refine.
  5. Look for new opportunities everywhere. With the explosion in gaming (and with a bunch of new, Net-connected boxes on the way), games offer one new opportunity to put your messages in front of engaged audiences. And that’s just one example. Public terminals, kiosks, shareware, broadband portals… all of these new technologies (or old tech becoming more popular) offer opportunities for reaching your customers where they are.

Now that we’ve gotten comfortable with the web, it’s time to start rethinking strategies that rely on one new medium. The means of electronic communication are exploding around us… don’t shut your eyes to the new opportunities and challenges coming your way.

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