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The myth of the PC-free life for boomers and seniors

PCs and MACs represent growth markets in 2010... With the excitement (translate that -- lots of press) about a wide variety of PC-less connection choices for TV, radio, and books, one might almost think the PC and its MAC brethren were dead. Not so fast, PC sales are expected to grow 10% this year and MAC growth expectations are as high as 26%.

...Yet home devices that end-run them are the rage.  For some leaving Las Vegas last week (I never arrived, so this is hypothetical), one could almost imagine a PC-avoidance strategy in the home. Let's imagine unpacking boxes of our newly acquired collection of device goodies culled from post-CES roundups. Of course, to use any of this, we already have a wireless router in the home and high speed Internet access. 

3D and broadband television. First we plug in our new 3D TV with its broadband connector for Skype and phone calls. Hopefully there turns out to be a boatload more content than is currently available and we haven't forgotten to pick up the 3D glasses so that we get the most out of it.

Next the radio.  Sometimes we're not in the mood to watch TV -- maybe (no surprise) there's really nothing on right now. We turn on our Internet Radio -- maybe one of the spiffy new ones from Sensia or this far less expensive one from Myine

Wireless picture frame. One company calls their wireless digital camera card Eye-fi (how cute). Since I have a wireless network, I can transfer the pics directly from my camera to the frame -- and my relatives can receive photos from me in their home, instantly. Of course for those family members to view pics, they need a wireless network too. Sigh.

Now our eBook Reader.  While we're listening to the radio, we want to read a book that we can download directly onto the reader.(How're you going to buy this thing? But I digress.) Down comes the latest bestseller available. Maybe it's even the Nook, the one that the Barnes and Noble bookstore is selling for $259. And why not lend a book to your friends: "Besides just allowing you to trade between friends with the Nook, you'll also be able to swap your stuff down to someone with an app on their iPhone or iPod touch, PC, Mac, BlackBerry, and eventually Android devices." Hopefully they have one of those. And no doubt, you'll love the impenetrable user interface as described by that reviewer.

Round out the collection -- where's that PC/Mac? We want to make sure to use our Google Voice or Skype account to call long distance for free. Maybe we take our new GPS with its continuously updated maps, and we also dock and sync up our brand new smartphone.  Oops, we sign up for Internet-based calling through our PC or Mac, register online for those GPS maps, loudly complain about lack of customer service for our new Google Nexus One, and get our e-mail percolation down to those devices through...you guessed it -- that pesky PC/Mac. And how did that wireless router get configured, anyway?

Sadly, seniors are largely cut out of this digital picture. So Pew Research's late-2009 survey update is now available. Looks like broadband adoption and Internet use by those age 65+ is dropping year over year: 38% use the Internet, 26% have broadband (down from 30%), only 16% have wireless access via a laptop or device. Why and what this means, that's for another day.





Your blog left a tantalizing "Why and what this means, that's for another day." at the very end.

First of all, I would agree completely that seniors are increasingly becoming comfortable using PCs, Macs, cellphones and the Internet. Not just those who are 65, but also those who are in their seventies and eighties. Secondly, it is not an all or nothing proposition. There are many more seniors today who are comfortable with computers and the Internet than in the past, but there are still plenty who are not. I would guess that within 5-8 years, 90% of all seniors over 65 would be comfortable using computers and the Internet.

There is another phenomenon that is not considered as commonly -- the behavioral changes that come from retirement (as opposed to simply being over 65). A vast majority of those over 65 are retired, and a valid question to address is whether the Internet usage of seniors arises from retirement or because they are "uncomfortable with using the Internet".

Inasmuch as numerous studies show that those over 65 use the Internet far less than those under 65, there are numerous other studies that show that those over 65 watch TV an average of 15 hrs per week more than those under 65. The fact is that Internet and TV both compete for a share of people's attention. With the 65+ segment it is biased toward TV, with the under-65 segment it is biased toward the Internet. Once again, not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Retirement brings with it an instant decline in usage of email, which is far and away the #1 use of the Internet today (heck, when I take vacation, my own email traffic declines by 70% for that week or two!). One could argue that other popular uses of the Internet such as instant messaging, downloading music and visiting adult web sites (hush!) are less interesting to seniors than to the under-65 segment.

So I would submit that it is a mistake to assume that seniors getting comfortable using the Internet automatically means they will use the Internet as much as the under-65 segment. Remember, TV is vying for a share of their time, and retirement gives them more time for TV than those who are still in the workforce.





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