GRAND RAPIDS — Like the television before it, the home computer is rapidly changing American life and the dynamics of the family unit.
Over the past two decades, the computer has moved its way from the office to the home office and to living rooms and dens. First, it replaced only the typewriter, and served as a sometimes calculator, electronic encyclopedia and game console.
Today, the maturation of the Internet has made the home computer an integral component of American life.
“There was a lot of overly optimistic ideas of putting smarts into existing appliances, tying in refrigerators with the computer so it could keep track of what went in or out, having it cook things in microwaves,” said Carl Erickson, CEO of Atomic Object LLC.
“The things that people expected to make a difference didn’t happen.”
Erickson said the big changes were in terms of communicating with people through ubiquitous Internet access.
“It’s not about linking the home together,” he said. “It’s about communicating and being able to buy things and look things up without leaving the home.”
In Erickson’s home, links to movies, the weather and recipes are found on one of his three computers. He doesn’t need phonebooks, and his children aren’t using the encyclopedia for schoolwork. Instead, they use Google.
Plus, laptops and wireless networks now have the computer moving about his home with the ease of a large book.
“A few years ago, it was tough to just find one that could be unobtrusive in the living room,” he said. “Now I can’t tell you how many times we have the laptop flipped open in the living room, looking at movie times or recipes.”
Keith Brophy, president of business development for NuSoft Solutions, has seen similar enhancements in his family’s life.
He points to seemingly simple things like paying bills online, finding usage history for utilities, researching products and checking backgrounds. Online research helped one child find a Yu-Gi-Oh card tournament and another child convinced the family to volunteer at the Humane Society after finding information online.
The Brophy children are not unique in that regard.
Teenagers no longer spend countless hours on the telephone. The chatter has moved to e-mail and instant messaging. A National Telecommunications and Information Administration report found that 90 percent of children between 5 and 17 use computers for communication. Of those, 74 percent use instant messaging, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
A greater concern than the exploits of children online could be the Internet’s inaccessibility to others.
“It is a necessary thing today to lead a good life,” Brophy said. “There are too many opportunities and enhancements from communication to research and entertainment. The quality of your life will suffer without it.”
Yet, according to U.S. Census findings, only 42.1 percent of American households had a home computer in 1998. That rose to a slight majority in 2001 at 56.5 percent, but only 50.5 percent of the nation had home Internet access.
Jupiter Research projects 78 percent of households will have a computer by 2007, but Jupiter also had projected 67 percent by 2001.
According to a 2004 report by the U.S Department of Energy, the computer trailed the air conditioner (72 percent), clothes dryer (78 percent) and washer (84 percent), dishwasher (57 percent) and electric coffee maker (65 percent) in home penetration.
“I still have a lot of friends that don’t have computers and it hurts them,” said Ryan Burkholder, a consultant for Mac Solutions Group. “They’ve found it hard to get into the mainstream and be taken seriously by employers. Often homework comes in computer format.”
A former employee of the Community Media Center, Burkholder cited its free computer labs as a possible solution.
Tim Goodwin believes that isn’t enough. He is the managing editor of Community Media Review, a duty he until recently shared with late CMC Executive Director Dirk Koning.
“Having a computer in the home is no different from having a telephone these days,” he said. “But for many people, it’s a matter of economics and class.”
If the cost of a computer isn’t prohibitive, the cost of an Internet connection might be, he said, while the cost of broadband Internet certainly is.
“It might not be enough to be able to go to the CMC or Kinko’s or the library to use the Internet,” he said. “It can take the place of a car in some ways. You don’t have to drive to do certain things. You don’t have to spend hours waiting in line.”
The “digital divide” created between those with Internet and broadband Internet access and those without might soon be alleviated, Goodwin said, with the city of Grand Rapids’ citywide Wi-Fi project.
The marketplace might yet provide its own incentive for low-income adoption.
Through integration, the computer is replacing other appliances. Most can play CDs and DVDs and process digital photos. Comcast has combined cable television and broadband Internet service, just as SBC has joined phone and DSL Internet. Comcast also has launched a digital video recording product for its home subscribers, and a Voice over Internet Protocol service will be available in the Grand Rapids market in 2006. SBC has partnered with Microsoft to distribute television channels over its Internet service.
From either end, the computer is evolving into a “digital hub” of home entertainment. Apple Computer’s release of the inexpensive and unobtrusive Mac Mini a month ago was the first computer designed to fit that role, but likely won’t be the last.
This could be the catalyst the lower-income groups need.
The Department of Energy report noted that of non-essential appliances, the percentage of ownership decreased dramatically with income for all amenities but color television, cable TV and VCRs.
Households with income of less than $25,000 were twice as likely to have cable TV as a computer.