Alistair Fairweather

Blooming late

2010-01-18 07:18

So 10% of South Africans are now online. According to the gurus at World Wide Worx, we've just passed the five million mark. It's a nice milestone, but forgive me if I'm a bit depressed that it took us nearly two decades.

Even more distressing is the list of countries with better penetration us. I'm not talking about the USA or Europe here, I'm talking about Zimbabwe (12.5%), Cuba (12.7%) and Palestine's West Bank (14.4%). We now have about the same penetration rate as Sudan. Yep, the country that has been at civil war for the last two decades.

The obvious culprit here is Telkom, the blundering monopolist whose combination of greed and gross incompetence has stunted the growth of the entire online industry - from internet service provision right through to ecommerce and online publishing.

But Telkom bashing is now a passé (if still enjoyable) pastime since deregulation is finally starting to bear fruit. In fact the statisticians believe that our internet population could double by 2015. That means the mythical "late adopters" will soon be taking their first steps online.

That term comes from the popular Everett Rogers Diffusion of Innovations Theory. It's an elegant model for how products are adopted by populations of people. It splits people into five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The last two categories are collectively called the late adopters and make up roughly half the population.

Together the innovators and early adopters normally make up about 16% of the population, so you might conclude that we're still in that phase. But given that half our population live in poverty, those groups probably make up less than eight percent of South Africans. So the people coming online now are either the early majority or the late adopters.

Many people (particularly early adopters) have a condescending, even scornful view of late adopters. These are the grumpy luddites who are holding back progress, they sneer. They are the old, the dull, the slow witted and the fearful - the ones who clog up call centres with queries about why their mouse won't work.

But in reality late adopters are what give an industry long term viability - transforming it from a whizz-bang fad into the bread and butter of whole economies. Just look at Google - it's the late adopters around the world that have really given them their heft. The same could be said of Microsoft during the PC revolution two decades ago.

And late adopters bring other benefits. They aren't impressed by flash and hype - they only start using something when it adds obvious and tangible value to their lives. When these people started going online in the developed world they triggered the birth of a whole new discipline: usability, which could also have been called "designing websites for non-geeks".

Late adopters are also loyal and - by definition - slow to change. If it weren't for them, for instance, the fixed line telephone industry in the USA would probably already have collapsed. Early adopters, by comparison, are notoriously fickle and flighty - quick to abandon you as soon as the next cool thing arrives on the scene.

So welcome, South African late adopters, to the internet. We hope you get as much pleasure out of it as we have. No doubt you have a lot to teach us. Let's hope we have the patience and good sense to listen.

Send your comments to Alistair

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