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Is the Net worth it?

A study finds that growth rates for Net users will drop by 20 percent unless PCs and online services get cheaper and cyberspace gets more compelling.

The number of consumers who jump online by year's end will fall by 20 percent unless PC and online subscription prices drop and content developers produce more informative, user-friendly sites, according to a study released today by the Yankelovich Partners.

The study of 707 cybercitizens, conducted between May 7 and June 2, found that the growth of online subscribers is still growing, but the rate is declining compared with last year.

The number of women who are going online is increasing, though, outpacing the growth of men. "Years ago, cyberspace was a boys club; now women represent half the users," said Walker Smith, managing partner with Yankelovich.

Between May 1994 and May 1995 "cybercitizenry" doubled. This year's numbers may be disappointing due to the "high level of dissatisfaction online users have about cyberspace," Smith said.

People can't find what they're looking for, and they are unsatisfied with reliability, he added.

Netizens also have been hopping from online services to Internet service providers, and vice versa. "People seem to be churning from service to service," Smith said.

The study also found that netizens are spending less time surfing. The average number of hours spent online this year are 12, down from 16 last year.

So, what's the problem? According to Smith, the numbers will rise if content developers produce more compelling sites.

"A lot of people are trying to see what's out there, and content developers need to keep their attention," Smith said. "The long-term viability of the medium is driven by the ability to provide people with something beyond a novelty. Otherwise it will be like a pet rock or something you get tired of and put on the shelf." About 75 percent of those surveyed said they like receiving frequent updates, while 45 percent want to download sounds and pictures, the study found.