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Internet fails to shine for 'silver surfers'

The Modern Maturity set is a growing yet elusive demographic for IT product engineers and Web site designers.

WALTHAM, Mass.--The problem with Harvey Bingham is that he's not your typical senior citizen.

The 72-year-old information accessibility consultant doesn't need someone to explain to him that search engine Google does not represent the entirety of "the Internet." Bingham isn't intimidated by e-mail, and doesn't consider a computer mouse nearly as repulsive as actual vermin.

The trouble with Bingham isn't that he's capable of almost any online activity popular among the youthful students here at Bentley College, where he's attending a town-hall style meeting this week on computer accessibility. The problem is that he's a septuagenarian aberration.


What's new:
"Silver surfers"--Internet users older than 60--are coming online in growing numbers, raising questions about the need for improved Internet access.

Bottom line:
Better accessibility and functions aren't necessarily right around the corner, but the rewards they promise are great. One likely advance: tools for people taking multiple medications and seeing several doctors, functionality that could help prevent accidental deaths.

More stories on computer accessibility

In a Monday afternoon session at the Aging by Design conference, co-sponsored by Bentley's Design and Usability Testing Center and the American Association of Retired People (AARP), Bingham is stumping for Internet accessibility standards, an effort he's undertaken as a longtime member of the World Wide Web Consortium.

His presence--and his point--are appreciated by the gathered mass of Web designers, IT professionals and executives, who appear equally enraptured and troubled by his call for improved technology guidelines for seniors. Bingham, who claims to have written his first computer program in 1958, doesn't have all the answers, but his comments are feeding the group's appetite for ideas.

The overriding theme at the conference is that businesses, specifically technology product and Web site designers, have yet to figure out how to build tools or resources that truly appeal to most people over the age of 50. The biggest questions of the day are how to rectify this state of affairs and who is more to blame for it: IT architects or society itself.

"I don't think it's fair to say that designers have been stupid to overlook the senior market. Short-sighted is probably more accurate," Bingham said. "We've had accessibility standards in place for years, but they remain too convoluted and just don't make it into enough products."

"Silver surfers"
About 6,000 Americans turn 65 each day, according to the AARP. And the fact that these people are getting older doesn't mean they're spending any less money. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group estimates that half of all new car sales in the United States are made to individuals older than 50. The older demographic, which is set to grow even faster as the baby boomer generation moves further into retirement, clearly represents a lucrative opportunity for savvy IT marketers.

But to John Rother, the AARP's director of policy and strategy, little has been done by the IT and Internet industries to pull in this swelling wave of potential customers, a group he believes to be increasingly willing to consider technological answers for their problems. Rother, who formerly served as a chief counsel to the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging, is now focusing on the Internet and the relative dearth of organized Web resources for helping seniors manage their health care.

Medicine in particular stands out as a sector hungry for new technology applications meant to address aging, and Rother says current efforts have yet to deliver.

"There's an amazing opportunity that is not being taken advantage of, as users are eager for new resources," Rother said. "The health care system is flawed, and there is a need for technology to help make the broken links in the system functional."

"I don't think it's fair to say that designers have been stupid to overlook the senior market. Short-sighted is probably more accurate."
--Harvey Bingham, information accessibility consultant
The Web also represents one of the technologies most rapidly gaining adoption by the older generation. "Silver surfers," or Internet users older than 60, continue to come online in growing numbers, representing 15 percent of the nation's online population, according to AARP estimates. By 2050, this group is expected to account for more than 27 percent of all U.S. Web users and even higher levels overseas. For people struggling with age-related disabilities, Web usage rates are even higher.

"Moving to electronic infrastructure for health care will be the single greatest (technology) intervention for the U.S. aging population," said Rother, who sports a white beard of his own. "Very basic problems become very soluble with the simple act of better information sharing."

The benefits of such systems are clear, and companies such as health care portal WebMD are already attempting to cash in. Rother contends that people who are taking multiple medications and seeing a variety of physicians will have far greater ability to manage their care using Web tools, and that as a result there will be far fewer accidental deaths.

As in many other Internet businesses, one of the biggest issues facing the development of health resources for elders is the matter of privacy. Rother is in favor of national health care IT infrastructure standards, and he said new Web resources must convince individuals that proprietary information is being protected if they are to stand a chance for adoption.

Other health-care-oriented technologies, including computer-driven systems that dispense medications, and terminals that allow seniors to interact via cameras with caregivers, were among the other potential business segments highlighted by the conference's array of speakers.

Putting up walls
For computing device and hardware manufacturers, the aging population also represents a growing prospect. Perhaps nowhere is this opportunity more evident than in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's PlaceLab, a one-bedroom condominium located not far from the school's Cambridge, Mass., campus that serves as a living showcase for emerging ideas. The project, launched earlier this year, is a joint effort with TIAX, a product and technology development company.

In the experiment, MIT researchers have placed volunteers in a living space armed with hundreds of sensors that measure everything from how much time the occupant spends sleeping, to how items like appliances can be automated to help make simple household tasks easier. The facility can carry out many of the same jobs characterized in other so-called pervasive computing environments, such as automatically turning on and off lights, or alerting proper authorities when something seems amiss.

"It's really about seeing how the technology can be used to improve the quality of life," said Kent Larson, director of MIT's House_n Consortium, which is overseeing PlaceLab.

Another example of a device that has found favor with older users comes from Japan, where cell phone manufacturer NTT has released its Raku Raku handset, a design that features larger buttons and a simplified user interface, meant to appeal to older users. While acceptance of the design can't be completely attributed to senior consumers, who represent an even larger percentage of that country's population, the company sold more than 2 million of the units in its first year of availability.

To Phil Terry, chief executive of customer experience consultancy Creative Good, the key for IT companies hoping to cater to the growing generation of older users is aligning business models and goals directly with the specific needs of aging customers.

"Older customers' behavior isn't necessarily that different from other groups of users--we just need to figure out how to reach this population," Terry said. "We have to begin by looking at the very design of our businesses to determine how to better build products that suit the demands of this market."