Once it was edgy and cool. Now the Internet has settled down into a comfortable middle age and become merely ... indispensible.
After spiking in the 1990s and early 2000s, the percentage of adult Americans online has leveled off in the past two years at 63 percent, says a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That percentage is expected eventually to rise, but not as quickly as some had imagined.
"It's no longer the case that the Internet population is growing by leaps and bounds," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project. However, "the Internet is eventually going to become as important and universal a technology as telephones and televisions are now."
Ninety-four percent of American homes today have telephones; 98 percent have TVs. "The Internet is eventually going to get to that level," he predicts, "but it's going to take at least 10 years - or maybe even 15 or 20."
Earlier polls showed skyrocketing growth in the use of the Internet. A 1995 survey found just 14 percent of Americans were online. But by March 2000 Pew showed 46 percent of American adults using the Internet.
While the percentages held even in 2002-2003, the just-released study did find that the majority of Americans who are online are using it more and more. "[Al]most any given activity we ask about - from e-mail to downloading music to seeking religious information online - has increased in the years since the project has existed," the report found.
Internet watchers aren't surprised by the findings.
"I see this as a relatively natural point in the Internet's adoption in the US and a sign that the Internet has become a mature technology," says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who has followed the development of the Internet for more than two decades. Many of those who aren't online are in the low-income bracket, he adds. Buying a $500 computer and spending $20 a month for Internet service just isn't in their budget.
That raises the question of whether the much-talked-about "digital divide" between those online and those not is closing. The Pew findings show that the poor and less-educated are online less than the affluent. Among Americans with less than a high school education, Internet usage dropped from 31 percent in January 2002 to 26 percent in August 2003, the report says.
Of those who don't use the Internet, at least one third, or about 10 percent of all adult Americans, would be online if they could, says Donna Hoffman, an Internet researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
"There would be more growth if only there were programs or opportunities for people who can't afford it," she says. "The Internet is clearly indispensible now, and when you have a technology that's indispensible, there's no question there's a role for the government in taking a look at what happens when people don't have that access ... and what are the implications of that."
Some people who can afford the technology aren't sure the benefits of being online outweigh the perceived drawbacks.
Older Americans especially "read about really awful human beings online and really awful content online, pornographers and ugly stuff," Mr. Rainie says. "[They] hear about people who are cheated online, about stalkers, [and ask] why should I invite this into my home?"
The Pew report says those who are online find plenty they want to do, from sending e-mail to seeking online information on everything from health to sports to international news.
And they're buying things.
"[W]e have seen approximately 5 million new households shop online since 2001," e-mails Carrie Johnson, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
So far, shopping online hasn't been affected by the Internet's stagnant growth, and Ms. Johnson doesn't expect it to be anytime soon. "Growth in online sales won't slow down considerably, since those people that were already shopping online continue to shift more purchases to the Web as they get comfortable shopping online," she says.
One key barrier slowing Internet growth is the lack of broadband connections in some areas, says Phillipa Gamse, an e-business strategy consultant in Santa Cruz, Calif. Broadband allows users to move around the Internet faster, doesn't tie up the phone line, and, perhaps most important, can be left on all the time, like other appliances.
"Broadband is enormously important," Jones says, because it makes the Internet easy to use. People "start to treat it more like the telephone or TV. They stop talking about 'going online' ... one's always online, in some sense."
• About a quarter of Americans have never been online.
• More than 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 use the Internet.
• Young Internet users like instant messaging and downloading music. Older Americans more often seek health information and material at government websites.
• The most popular online activity is sending e-mail.
• In August 2003 66 million Americans were online on a typical day.
Source: "America's Online Pursuits: The Changing Picture of Who's Online and What they Do," Dec. 28, 2003, The Pew Internet & American Life Project (full report available at www.pewinternet.org).