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Many On-Line Users Not All That Hooked on Cyberspace : Computers: Survey finds that no single Internet feature, except e-mail, is used regularly. Consumers prefer CD-ROMs.

October 16, 1995|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Although the number of Americans connecting to a commercial on-line service or the Internet continues to balloon--doubling just this year--a new study finds many aren't smitten by cyberspace.

Although information technology has invaded the lives of Americans with stunning speed in recent months, a study conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press found that less than a third of those who connect to an on-line service such as CompuServe or Prodigy would miss it "a lot" if no longer available, and 9% of those surveyed have stopped using their computers altogether.

What's more, no single on-line feature, with the exception of e-mail, is used with any regularity and there is little indication that on-line information services are changing traditional patterns of news consumption.

However, the survey found that CD-ROM drives, which are found in almost half of all home computers today, are preferred by many consumers to connecting to on-line services.

The survey adds fuel to consumer complaints that using computers to connect to on-line services remains far too complex and that once on-line, the content available to subscribers is often less than compelling.

While the survey found that consumers generally have positive feelings about high technology, 23% complained they felt "overloaded with information." And nearly half did not know the correct speed of their computer's modem, the device that allows a computer to communicate over a telephone line.

"Configuration remains difficult and it's a big cultural change to use an on-line service," said Rod Kuckro, editor of the Information & Interactive Services Report in Washington. "It's mostly people who use it at work who tend to" embrace on-line services more quickly at home.

The survey found that 14% of all Americans can be called on-line users, either by subscribing to an on-line or Internet service at home or having access to one at work. But just 3.5% make a connection every day.

Kuckro said the number of on-line users is likely to increase as computer networks reach more people. Nearly 40 million people in 154 countries now have access to Internet electronic mail. The survey said about 25 million Americans have been on-line at least once.

Not surprisingly, better-educated and more prosperous Americans have been the quickest to embrace the technology.

But the disparity of computer use between well-off and moderate-income families has narrowed considerably as the cost of equipment has dropped.

Today personal computers are almost as likely to be found in the homes of those who live in rural areas (28%) as they are among city dwellers (32%), the survey said. And while 57% of families with annual incomes greater than $50,000 used a computer, 23% of families with incomes between $20,000 and $29,000 used a computer.

Even among the poorest Americans computers have begun to make inroads: 12% of families making less than $20,000 used a computer, although their PCs frequently lacked CD-ROM drives and other costly accessories.

Still many experts said they are perplexed over the survey's findings that computer users are seemingly more enamored of CD-ROM drives than on-line services.

"Without knowing the methodology that was used in the survey, I just can't understand why people would prefer CD-ROMs," said David Hipschman, who writes a syndicated newspaper column on the Internet and is contributing editor to the electronic magazine Web Review.

"Any information that is available on CD-ROM is available from the Internet for little or no cost" outside of the monthly connection fees to access the network, Hipschman said.

Not surprisingly, the new study found most popular on-line activity is electronic mail.

Research for work or school is the second most-prevalent use, followed by obtaining news updates, participating in forums or chat groups and getting entertainment and financial information.

"The one thing that stands out is that e-mail works," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center. "Beyond that, there's nothing else that seems to be attracting a mass audience within an on-line world."

Conducted in May and June of this year, the survey was based on a nationwide telephone sample of 3,603 adults and an additional sample of 402 adult on-line users. Results based on the total adult sampling had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points. Results based on on-line users only had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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