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Marketing in the Internet - as seen from Italy

by Giancarlo Livraghi

No. 15 - February 19, 1998
1. Editorial: A bridge or a thread?
2. New numbers
3. America farther away
4. Funny translations
5. Some interesting news
6. Another statistics
red buttonSummary

1. Editorial: A bridge or a thread?
There is a deep rift between what can be done on the net and what is being done; and that becomes a canyon if we consider the differences between the more advanced countries, such as the United States, and those that are lagging behind - and that includes a large part of Europe. That's pretty clear, I think, to anyone analyzing the situation carefully; and I hope to have been able to prove it "beyond possible doubt" in the first fourteen issues of this newsletter.

But "crying on spilt milk" is a waste of time. The question is: how do we solve the problem? I don't think we need a huge bridge, like the one being endlessly discussed (but never built) between continental Italy and Sicily.

The power of the net is in the enormous number of individual transactions. Each one of us can send a thin thread across the canyon; with patience, imagination and consistency we can all weave our little webs. That ever-evolving network of relationships can be stronger that any steel bridge.

Every connection that establishes a bind of understanding and trust, no matter how tiny it may seem, becomes a pillar for further construction. Every little branch that finds a hold can strengthen a tree, that can grow faster than the net as a whole. Every little knot of believability that sets the ground for a fruitful relationship opens the way for more.

Of course there are huge battles between gigantic companies and organizations competing for the infrastructure. Let's hope they will do a good job (there are serious problems to be solved, not only in connectivity but especially in compatibility). But much more can be done by millions of small companies, professional organizations and individual people that build the network of relationships.

There is a lot to be done in spreading knowledge and understanding, bringing more people and organizations into a genuine human culture of the net. That is enormously more important than all the noise about technical innovations that are often ephemeral and useless - especially when most people don't know how to use them effectively.

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2. New numbers
A new worldwide hostcount report was published by Network Wizards on February 6. For technical reasons, they have changed their system. This probably leads to more accurate data and more reliable comparisons between countries; but unfortunately it gets in the way of historical analysis.

The most remarkable finding in these new data is that the gap between the United States and the rest of the world (including Europe) is not narrowing, as we all expected, but widening. It's hard to understand if this is an actual trend or a result of a more accurate technique. It may be a combination of both. I shall look into that in the next point of this issue. But, before I get to that, here are the figures:

Internet Hosts

(Network Wizards, February 6, 1998; countries with over 20,000 hosts)

  Number of hosts Percentage
United States 20,623,296 69.5
Japan 1,168,956 3.9
Germany 994,926 3.3
United Kingdom 987,733 3.3
Canada 839,141 2.8
Australia 665,403 2.2
Finland 450,044 1.5
Netherlands 381,172 1.3
France 333,306 1.1
Sweden 319,065 1.1
Norway 286,338 1.0
Italy 243,250 0.8
Taiwan 176,836 0.6
New Zealand 169,264 0.6
Spain 168,913 0.6
Denmark 159,358 0.5
South Africa 122,025 0.4
Korea 121,932 0.4
Brazil 117,200 0.4
Switzerland 114,816 0.4
Russia 114,164 0.4
Austria 109,154 0.4
Belgium 87,938 0.3
Poland 77,954 0.3
Hong Kong 66,617 0.2
Israel 64,233 0,2
Singapore 57,605 0.2
Czech Republic 52,498 0.18
Hungary 46,082 0.16
Mexico 41,659 0.14
Portugal 39,533 0.13
Ireland 38,406 0.13
Malaysia 32,269 0.11
Greece 26,917 0.09
Turkey 24,786 0.08

Here are the first 12 countries in a "pie" chart:

Internet Hosts in 12 countries

Network Wizards, February 6, 1998 - Countries with over 200,000 internet hosts


70 percent of all internet hosts are in one country, with 5 percent of the world's population.

80 percent in 4 countries, with 10 percent of the population.

90 percent in 10 countries, with 12 percent of the people.

10 percent in the rest of the world, with nine tenths of the people.

One day, I hope and trust, this trend will reverse. But so far it's not changing, it's getting worse. I don't think any of the figures on the number of users are reliable, but one fact is clear: 98 percent of the people worldwide have no access to the internet.

As usual, let's look at density (host per 1000 inhabitants):

Internet hosts per 1000 inhabitants

Analysis on data by Network Wizards, February 6, 1998
Countries with over 100,000 hosts and density over 2


There is something new here, compared to all other analyses: the United States are dominant in density as well as total number; very close to Finland's traditional worldwide leadership.

Though we looked at year-end European data only a month ago, I think it's interesting to glance at the January RIPE report. There are no sings of recovery for Italy: its hostcount decreases again, though by only 1.4 percent in a month (while Europe as a whole increased 2.6 percent in the same period).

Let's look at density in the European Union:

Internet hosts per 1000 inhabitants in the European Union

Analysis on data by RIPE (Réseaux IP Européens) - February 3, 1998


Spain is gaining momentum and growing faster than other Mediterranean countries. France is not yet showing a major shift from the minitel to the internet.

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3. America farther away
Not just from the data reported above, but from many other symptoms as well, it appears that a major change is beginning to happen in the United States. The net is becoming part of everyday life for "ordinary people" as a result of social trends (such as communicating with children at school or staying in touch with friends as they move around) as well as economic activities. Net marketing, including "electronic commerce", is becoming an ordinary way of life, not only for special sectors.

This leads to two opposite considerations.

On the one hand, the gap increases between the dominating country and the rest of the world, and especially those countries (such as mine) that are behind even the European average. Let me repeat that this is not just a time factor: there are structural differences in market and society, that time alone won't change. The consequences can be quite severe for the economies and cultures of many countries worldwide - and especially for Europe.

On the other hand, a widespread use of electronic communication in the United States can have a "traction" effect on other countries (such as mine) that have frequent contacts with American organizations and people. That should lead, sooner or later, to a fast increase in the use of the net (especially e-mail) in many parts of Europe.

The time to get ready is now. We can not, and should not, try to "imitate" American developments. But we must learn from them; and get ready for a change that will come. Return on investment (I don' mean only money) may not be fast; but the need is quite urgent to improve our culture and knowledge of the new tools that are available - or one day we shall discover that "we can't live without them" and we are unprepared to use them effectively.

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4. Funny translations
Thirty years ago, when the smallest computer was the size of a large truck, I found a little item on the Daily Telegraph. I had it framed and hung it up on the wall (I also gave a few copies to chosen clients and friends and I was quite amused, many years later, when I found them still hanging in their offices.)

It said:

A firm experimenting with an electronic brain designed to translate English into Russian fed it the words: "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." The machine responded with a sentence in Russian which meant, a linguist reported, "The whisky is agreeable but the meat has gone bad."

My reason for quoting this was not, at the time, related to computers (that we used almost only for computing). It was about the misunderstandings in human dialogue when a concept is transferred from one language to another. There are countless anecdotes, generally very funny but sometimes quite dramatic.

On February 5 Umberto Eco (he often shows, in his writings, a good understanding of the net and how it works) wrote about electronic translations in his weekly column on L'Espresso. Here is an approximate "free translation" of his comments:

In last week's issue it was reported that Altavista provides an online translation service. I was curious and decided to test it. For very simple sentences it sort of works. I wrote, in Italian, the beginning of our Constitution: "Italy is a republic founded on work". It was translated rather poorly: "Italy is one republic founded on the job" - though when I had it back-translated into Italian I recovered the original.

With a sentence by Eraclitus I had a mixed result: the grammar was awful but the meaning was there. When I tested "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss" the Italian translation was nonsensical; re-translating it into English it became "You must ricordarsi of this, a kiss you are right a kiss".

I tried with a famous piece by Descartes about common sense, had it translated into English, then back to French and from there into Italian. The result was hopeless - worse than the awful work of those translators that, many years ago, used to translate Russian novels from French and left us in doubt: is Prince Andreij really dead?

I was a bit mischievous when I fed it an English tongue-twister: "A tutor who tooted the flute tried to tutor two tutors to toot. Said the two to the tutor: Is it harder to toot, or to tutor two tutors to toot?". The result in Italian was something like: "A private teacher that [tooted] the groove tried to the private teachers of the private teacher two a [toot]. Said a two to the private teacher: Is it harder at [toot] or at the private teachers of the private teachers two at [toot]? (The words in brackets were left in English, because the machine could not find an Italian equivalent of "toot").

I think there is a moral to this story. All techniques can be useful, if used properly; but it's extremely dangerous to put or destiny in the hands of technologies with no human control.

An automatic translation system could be quite useful if I had an urgent need to communicate a very simple sentence in Finnish, such as "Landing in Helsinki Thursday at 12.50 on flight AY798." But it's not an adequate tool for people or organizations that need to understand each other on not-so-elementary concepts, and with some subtleties of meaning and tone. I was horrified, a few weeks ago, when a university professor said publicly: "Automatic translations will make it easier for Italian companies to handle e-commerce worldwide". I can't think of any company being so stupid as to let any mechanism (or inadequately competent people) handle the English version of their website, or any form of communication in any language; but, if anyone did, the consequences would not just be funny, they could be quite awful.

By falling into such traps we would not only be labeled worldwide as illiterate, but (even worse) we would sink into a maelstrom of misunderstandings.

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5. Some interesting news

The internet is becoming an "ordinary" tool in the United States

Several sources confirm that in 1997 there was a crucial change in the United States: use of the internet is becoming a widespread habit in American families. There are, as always, discrepancies in the estimates of the number of users, which in the USA vary from 40 to 60 million.

According to a survey by Intelliquest 25 percent of the total online population in the USA first started accessing the Internet in 1997. This group comprised "middle America", and tended to be less highly educated and with less disposable income than those who had been online a year earlier. The surge reflects the increase in the amount of ordinary Americans going online and the increasingly indispensable position the internet holds in both popular culture and wider society.

A report by Cyberdialogue shows a 21 percent increase in use of the internet among adults since the second quarter of 1997. A spokesperson from Cyberdialogue commented, "Internet usage will continue to grow for the next five years, but the market will become much more segmented as the medium becomes more mainstream and user preferences become more divergent".

Men and women online

According to several American sources, there is still a male majority in net users but it's decreasing. Men are approximately 57 percent, women 43 percent - and growing.

European reports show a more unbalanced picture. A source indicates 28 percent women online in Switzerland; figures for Germany vary from 12 to 30 percent (but, in any case, the presence of women is growing). Users in the UK are still predominantly male. In Italy, according to an Eurisko survey, 30 percent of the people that can have internet access are women; this suggests a considerable increase of female presence, but we are still far away from the "parity" that is likely to be reached soon in the United States.

Research commissioned by Microsoft and carried out by NOP has revealed that the amount of women working in the IT industry in the USA has dropped from 30 percent in 1989 to 15 percent today. The statistics differ sharply from those in South East Asia where women comprise over half of the industry (but, I dare say, we have reasons to worry about the state of female employment in many of those countries). According to Debbie Walsh, a spokesperson from Microsoft, in the "western" environment it's an image thing. Women are under the impression that the industry is dominated by men - and so tend to stay away from the whole area.

Companies don't know how to use the net

The results of the UK Internet User Survey 1998 by Fletcher Research, as reported by NUA, show that although businesses are aware of the importance of having a website they are far from clear about how it affects, or potentially affects, traffic to their site and consequently transaction of business online. The majority of businesses are employing "keep up with the Jones" style web strategies and merely copying each other's websites.

"Websites need content. The internet is an interactive and dynamic medium and any website, whether corporate or not, should reflect that. People are not going to come back to visit a site, irrespective of how appealing the design or how easy the navigation is, if it's just a glorified digital company brochure."

There are strong indications that the situation isn't any better in most European countries.

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6. Another statistic
Months ago, I had quoted other indexes based on traffic on a single site. Of course such data don't have any "universal" statistical value, but they are interesting symptoms of online activity.

I am grateful to NUA for providing me with data on visits to their site in the last two years.

Half their traffic comes from the United States and Canada. 10 percent from the home market (Ireland). 13 percent from the rest of Europe and 27 percent from the rest of the world.

Here are percentages for some of the countries (based on a combination of data):

United States 47.11
Ireland 10.16
United Kingdom 3.73
Australia 2.48
Canada 2.41
Germany 1.88
France 1.37
Japan 1.15
Netherlands 0.97
Sweden 0.95
Italy 0.75
Finland 0.58
Spain 0.56
Brazil 0.52
Norway 0.45
South Africa 0.39
Austria 0.36
Singapore 0.32
Taiwan 0.32
New Zealand 0.35
Malaysia 0.30
Russia 0.25
Israel 0.25
Philippines 0.22
Hong Kong 0.20
India 0.18
Poland 0.17
Greece 0.15
Czech Republic 0.15
Thailand 0.14
Portugal 0.14
Korea 0.14
Slovakia 0.14

Of the two largest countries in the world, China is irrelevant in this case (0.03 percent if we don't include Hong Kong) while India has a certain presence. That is probably due to a language problem (few Chinese speak English) as well as political restrictions in China (as in several countries in South-East Asia).

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