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Do gamers really want Web access?

A survey shows that only about 30 percent of households with game consoles are interested in using them for Web surfing or email.

Maybe game consoles won't replace PCs after all.

That's one conclusion of a new study conducted by market researcher International Data Corp.

Speculation has run high that advanced features in the newest gaming consoles, such as Sega's Dreamcast and Sony's forthcoming PlayStation2, would compete with PCs as gamers began to use the devices to surf the Web and check email.

But IDC's survey of 350 U.S. households with video-game consoles revealed that only about 30 percent of console owners are interested in using them for general Web surfing or email. At the same time, half would be interested in using the consoles to download new games or levels from the Web.

Game makers have been hot to provide online gaming or Internet access with their devices.

In April, for example, Sega launched the Sega.com gaming site and its own branded Internet service, SegaNet. Sega also plans to offer Internet telephony over its Dreamcast consoles.

Likewise, Microsoft is making Internet connection an important part of its Xbox console that was unveiled in March and will hit the market next year.

But those Internet features may go to waste for the same reason that Microsoft's WebTV has failed to take off as much as expected.

"The real inhibitor is people don't want to surf the Web on their TVs or get their email where people can see everything in the room," IDC analyst Schelley Olhava said. And typically, game consoles are connected to televisions rather than PCs.

IDC forecasts that sales of set-top boxes used for Web surfing and email will reach 11 million this year and 89 million in 2004. But lackluster WebTV sales are more evidence that people are comfortable using PCs to connect to the Internet but find televisions cumbersome.

"Web surfing on your TV is not the greatest experience," Olhava said.

IDC's survey also revealed that about 32 percent of PC households and 25 percent of those without PCs were very interested in Web surfing and email via game consoles. Surprisingly, households without PCs--the segment with the most reason to use game consoles for Web surfing and email--were the least interested in Internet features. About 41 percent of non-PC households vs. 38 percent of those with PCs were not at all interested in the gaming consoles' Web features.

Although Sega, Sony and others have scrambled to add more Internet capabilities to their consoles, gamers are more interested in interactive capabilities, Olhava said. Nearly 50 percent of console owners would also embrace downloading new games or features from the Web.

But Olhava did not recommend that game makers abandon their Internet strategies. IDC predicts strong growth of Internet appliances, which, like set-top boxes, are mainly used for Web surfing and email. Although Internet appliances have more in common with PCs than with televisions, there is one significant difference: Unlike PCs, Internet appliances turn on instantly.

"Game consoles are very much like Web appliances, where you turn it on and it's there. If you've got broadband access, then you can get online fast. That could be compelling in the future," Olhava said.

In addition, the IDC survey revealed that gamers are also Web surfers, with 34 percent frequently visiting game-related Web sites. Forty-two percent of PC households and 20 percent of those without PCs visit gaming sites. Fifty-two percent of teenage gamers access the games sites frequently, substantially more than any other age group.

The survey discovered other interesting information about households with game consoles: Households with game consoles tend to be early adopters of new technology. Average household income is $48,000 for households with consoles vs. $46,000 for the others. About 61 percent of households with consoles own PCs compared with 52 percent of the others. And 49 percent of console households had online access vs. 42 percent of the others.

Male gamers in general favored rabid sports and action games, while 36 percent of female gamers preferred adventure games.

One startling statistic demonstrated Sega's edge over Sony. Typically, about 6 percent of the primary gamers in a household are young women. But IDC found the figure was much higher for Dreamcast households, 11.5 percent.

"This means Sega's audience is really extended beyond the core gamer segment, which is typically teenage males," Olhava said. Although Sega's Dreamcast trails Sony PlayStation substantially in market share, this broadening of appeal could be essential to new Dreamcast sales, she said.

The battle of the game consoles is already accelerating. Sega today cut the price of Dreamcast by 25 percent to $150. Sega hopes to accelerate sales before Sony releases its long-anticipated PlayStation2 in the United States.