Sometime in 2005, we quietly passed a dramatic milestone in Internet history: the one-billionth user went online. Because we have no central register of Internet users, we don't know who that user was, or when he or she first logged on. Statistically, we're likely talking about a 24-year-old woman in Shanghai.
According to Morgan Stanley estimates, 36% of Internet users are now in Asia and 24% are in Europe. Only 23% of users are in North America, where it all started in 1969 when two computers — one in Los Angeles, the other in Palo Alto — were networked together.
It took 36 years for the Internet to get its first billion users. The second billion will probably be added by 2015; most of these new users will be in Asia. The third billion will be harder, and might not be reached until 2040.
In 2002, NUA estimated that we had 605 million Internet users. Since then, Internet use has grown by 18% per year — certainly not as fast as the 1990s, but still respectable.
Overall, the Internet's growth has been truly remarkable. Ten years ago, the 'net was mostly used by geeks; now it's the default way to do business in many countries. In our U.S. and European B2B studies, many business professionals said they visit a company's website as the first step in researching potential vendors.
E-commerce will continue to grow. It typically takes people two to three years from when they first get online to feel confident enough to buy from websites. This means that e-commerce sales will at least double from their current level when more of the current billion users start shopping online.
The billion-user Internet is a highly diverse environment that has moved far beyond the elite in Silicon Valley and other global technology hubs. There are hundreds of millions of old people online, and there are even more users without fancy graduate degrees. Users are not like you, and the difference between elite and mainstream users is getting bigger every day.
This means that for e-commerce to fulfill its potential to double, sites must be more systematic at following the e-commerce usability guidelines. Selling to the 200 million early adopters was easy. The 800 million mainstream users who are now starting to shop need much smoother sites; the next billion will require even higher usability levels.
By 2015, Americans will be less than 15% of Internet users and will likely account for about one-third its value (Americans typically spend more than other users). The fact that two-thirds of Internet revenues will come from other countries highlights the growing importance of international usability. Unfortunately, few companies currently do user testing abroad, and fewer still have a truly robust internationalization strategy. Sooner or later, local options will increase and overseas users will stop using sites that don't meet their requirements.
Another implication of this demographic shift: U.S. market share and Silicon Valley buzz will become less important than international use as the metric for judging the potential of companies and technologies. The Mac, for example, already matters less than you think. Although it has a prominent role in the U.S., it's hard to refer to a company with single-digit market share as "dominant." In Asia, the Mac is practically nonexistent.
China, India, and Usability
As China and India add another billion Internet users, the need for usability in these two markets will explode. As I mentioned three years ago, the two nations can't even meet the demands for offshore usability. Recently, I've heard even worse stories from several big American and European companies who've found it almost impossible to recruit high-quality usability staff for their development teams in China and India.
There's obviously a risk that offshoring will absorb the talent in China and India, leaving their domestic website design projects wanting. Difficult-to-use Chinese and Indian sites will have dire consequences for the second billion users' productivity and happiness. To meet the demand for senior usability professionals over the next decade, both countries — as well as other large nations in Asia and Latin America — need a crash program to grow domestic usability professionals.
Putting aside the details of how to make the multi-billion-user Web work, the very fact that it's realistic to expect a second billion users points to interactive media's compelling value. People all over the world are experiencing unprecedented levels of empowerment: being able to do things is why the Web has grown so fast, and will continue to grow for years to come.
Update January 2012
The Internet passed 2 billion users in early 2011 — about 6 years after I wrote this article to celebrate the first billion users. This is 4 years earlier than I had expected. Amazing that growth kept going so strong during a period that was partly characterized by the worst recession since the 1930s.
As predicted, most growth was in Asia, which will hit a full billion users in its own right during 2012, if it's not already there. (Statistics are slightly iffy across so many diverse countries.)
Reflecting back on my 2005 article, I think it's still about right. E-commerce revenues (and the resulting importance of good e-commerce UX) have certainly exploded.
Looking forward, there is every reason to expect continued growth. Lower growth rates , for sure. We almost certainly won't see a second doubling to 4 billion users during the 6 years from 2011 to 2017. But it might be realistic to add another billion users during this period. The absolute incremental growth would be the same, even though the growth rate would drop to 50% per 6 years (or 7% per year).
So let this be my new prediction:
- 3 billion Internet users by 2017
- Continued stronger growth in Asia and slower growth in the almost-fully saturated markets of North America, Europe, and Australia.
- In our countries, one of the few remaining growth segments is older users, who will finally start using the Internet in almost the same proportion as younger people.
Update 2015: 3 Billion
My prediction from 2012 has already been beaten: we were at 3.2 billion Internet users as of May 2015 according to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). Of these, 2.2 billion live in developing countries, which again means that there's 1 billion Interent users in rich countries.
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