Race for a digital Britain has left women and over-45s in starting blocks

By Iain S Bruce, Technology Editor-Sunday Herald

MORE than a third of the population are hooked up to broadband, 2.6
billion text messages are sent every day and three million seniors are
wearing MP3 music players, but despite appearances, the dream of a
digital Britain is dangerously off-course.

New research, which is to be published by pollsters Mori tomorrow, will
reveal that, contrary to the chromium-encrusted image of the iPod age,
Britain’s adoption of key consumer technologies is lagging behind the
rest of Europe, particularly amongst women and the over-45s. The
report’s authors warn that this failure to fully exploit the latest
advances could have profound consequences for the government’s drive to
digitise the UK.

“Britain may have over a third of households connected to fast internet
lines, but such figures are misleading and only disguise the truth that
large sections of the population are turned off by technology,” said
Mori’s Gareth Deere. “It’s all very well insisting that gadgets are the
way forward, but if half your audience fail to see their potential to
enhance daily life and refuse to use them, then you’ve got a serious
problem on your hands.”

Commissioned by high-tech agency Hotwire, the most exhaustive survey
yet into the use of consumer technologies in the UK reveals the extent
to which the country is falling behind its nearest neighbours.

In France and Germany, more than a quarter of people now inhabit
internet-ready, fully networked homes, compared with Britain’s 12%,
while the adoption of advances such as mobile phones, MP3 players and
Voice over Internet (VoIP) calls is similarly slower.

Hallmarked as a significant inhibitor to further development, this
digital deficit is marked among women in Britain, with only 29% using
broadband connections compared to 42% of men.

“This isn’t just about selling more gizmos at Christmas.

“It’s a measure of Britain’s progress as a 21st century country and a
major societal issue,” said Brendon Craigie, senior partner at the
Hotwire agency.

“There are some amazing technologies out there that could bring huge
lifestyle and economic benefits but, if we can’t get all sections of
the market to use them, these just aren’t going to happen.”

According to the report’s authors, women are simply not getting the IT
message and are frequently discouraged from adopting new advances after
being presented with a bewildering array of data in place of practical
information. As a result, technology is still perceived by many as a
male-dominated, geeky area.

“To reverse the current trend, we need to shift the focus from listing
technical specifications to explaining in plain English what these
things actually do,” said Deere. “If broadband advertising changed from
droning on about download limits to explaining what that means in terms
of making free internet telephone calls, for example, I think we’d see
an immediate increase in the number of women getting connected.”

When it comes to gadgets, a man’s first reaction may be to ask if it
comes in chrome, but women are more concerned about whether a new gizmo
works and if so, whether it does something useful. Consequently, as
manufacturers strive to cram all conceivable functions – from
television sets to telephones – into a single unit, women are being
turned off by creeping over-complication.

“The functionality arms race that seems to have worked the industry
into a frenzy has backfired,” said Craigie. “For both women and the
over-45s, all that’s required of technology is that it has both an
obvious use and is easy to apply to real life.”

The statistics back this view up. Women and older buyers might not be
quick to embrace fledgling services such as VoIP, which still require a
technical understanding to set up, but the opposite is true where
push-button technologies of proven worth are concerned. As is the case
with personal video recorders, where females and the over-45s make up
49% and 43% of the market respectively.

The research has sparked fears that the UK may miss out on a raft of
economic and social benefits, ranging from digital delivery of key
public services to enabling mobile-working mothers to fit a career
around the demands of child rearing.

“We’ve been hearing about the benefits of a digital world for a long
time now, but unless current trends change these will never be a
reality,” said Craigie. “As much as the survey brings bad news,
however, it also contains a great opportunity for any company that can
respond to the needs of this hitherto ignored part of the population.”


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