Sunday, May 23, 1999

Tech firms courting senior citizens

The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — Computer companies are catching on — grandma and grandpa want to surf the Web.

        With the number of older Americans on the Internet growing, but only one out of four people over age 60 owning computers, hi-tech companies are viewing the elderly as one of the last largely untapped U.S. markets.

        Companies including Microsoft, Intel and America Online are distributing instructional videos on computer use, sponsoring training seminars and creating Web sites that cater to the elderly.

        “We're finding a lot of interest,” said Craig Spiezle, director of Microsoft's senior initiative. “Clearly, the growth is huge.”

        People over age 50 are the second-fastest-growing group on the Internet, trailing only 16-to-24-year-olds, according to a study last year by Nielsen Media Research and CommerceNet.

        But the over-50 group accounts for only 17 percent of the people who use the Internet, the study found. And only 25 percent of people over age 60 own a computer, compared with 50 percent for the rest of the population, according to research by Microsoft and the American Society on Aging.

        So company officials are taking action.

        Intel, the world's largest chip maker, has donated equipment for computer training centers and sponsored Web sites that cater to the elderly.

        America Online, the nation's largest Internet provider, has boosted its content directed at seniors, forming partnerships with groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

        IBM offers computer discounts to members of the nonprofit computer training group SeniorNet. Online auctioneer e-Bay has run print ads aimed at older customers, and computer maker Gateway has sponsored training seminars and run TV ads.

        “We see it as a very important market,” said Greg Lund of Gateway. “These are people who are not only not scared of technology, they're willing to experiment with it.”

        Microsoft is conducting one of the more high-profile efforts, spending millions of dollars and hiring a five-person staff dedicated to reaching out to older customers. The Redmond, Wash., software giant announced this month that it is shipping 10,000 free videos to community groups to introduce seniors to computers.

        Last week, Microsoft issued guidelines for businesses and Web site developers on how to make Internet sites more user-friendly and accessible for seniors.

        Cynthia Creighton, a 57-year-old former civil servant taking a computer training class in Portland, Ore., said she uses her computer to send poems to her daughters.

        “It's been a marvelous way to keep in touch,” she said.

        Company officials see something else — profits. Industry officials say many of the elderly have the key essentials to becoming computer owners — time and money.

        The most recently available census data, from 1993, showed that 70-to-74-year-olds, followed by 65-to-69-year-olds, were the wealthiest age groups in America based on net worth.

        Hi-tech companies are “definitely catching on,” said Mark Carpenter, online communications director for the AARP. “Lots of times when you are 22 years old you can't afford to buy a PC.”

        Frances Jette, 59, of Hudson, N.H., was only one week into her first computer training class earlier this year when she plunked down $1,500 to buy her first computer. Now she has set up a Web page to sell the clocks she makes, and she checks it each day for orders.

        “It was ... well worth it,” she said.

        Industry experts say the increasing focus on the elderly has been a natural progression. With their children and grandchildren often already plugged in, seniors see computers as valuable for checking stock prices, getting health and travel tips and, above all, exchanging e-mail and digital photographs.

        “They want to keep in touch with their family and friends,” said Laura Fay of SeniorNet in San Francisco.

        And with retirees living longer, and often viewing Social Security as insufficient to support them, they also want training for a new job.

        Ed Kelley, who signed up with Green Thumb Inc., a nonprofit group that provides computer training to the low-income elderly, said, “There's absolutely nothing in here I can't learn.”


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