How useful is the web?

Posted on Aug 12, 2004

Yesterday we wanted to find a pub next to a river in the general area of Rickmansworth where we could sit and have lunch. The general idea was to fortify ourselves before a visit to Chenies Manor House (review: good tour of the house - interesting guide, impressive gardens, overall a pleasant way to spend three hours, though Louis (who is three) got bored towards the end of the house tour). Trying to use the web for this proved frustrating - there are sites that will list pubs, but they provide no details. Many reviews don’t tell me whether or not the river that should be next to the pub is actually visible. In the end we visited The Whip and Collar (don’t choose I feel lucky, as that will get you something other than the desired outcome :-/), as I’d been there once before many years ago (review: good service, good steak and kidney pie, good minted lamb, entertaining ducks and geese).

The experience of using the web for this set me thinking about how useful the internet really is for lots of problems. Let’s define how useful as any improvement over the non-internet solution to the same problem. Improvement is sufficiently vague to support lots of interpretation, but stick with me.

On this metric the internet is not useful for finding the kind of pub that I wanted. In fact, it’s probably negatively useful. Booking cinema tickets is another interesting example - online ticket booking adds very little to the experience of booking tickets over the phone. Both are automated systems and generally get the job done. Booking over the internet might be slightly faster, but not by much. On that basis the internet is not useful for booking cinema tickets.

The pinnacle of usefulness for the internet, at least for me, occurred about eight years ago when the Seagate website provided me with the jumper pin settings for a second hand SCSI disk that I’d been given. From receiving the disk to finding the pin settings was about 5 minutes. Compare this to the non-internet approach - it runs something like:

  • find contact details for Seagate in the US (anything from 5 minutes if the information is printed on the drive to a day spent messing around with operators),
  • ring Seagate and relay the details of the drive and the request for pin settings (5 minutes if their support line is not busy and clued up, an hour if it’s popular or they are clueless),
  • receive the settings, perhaps by fax.

In this case the internet is incredibly useful. This example can be extended to a lot of computing related information sources, whether it’s finding applications, help with problems or simply performing price comparisons.

Move out from computing and things get more difficult. Digital Photography Review does a very good job of providing detailed information on digital cameras, including reviews and comparisons. camcorderinfo.com is much less useful, mostly serving to demonstrate just how good dpreview really is.

The AA site is reasonably useful for direction information. Type in two postcodes and a route is provided in a minute or so. Previously this required ringing them and relaying the same information. Your printed route would arrive in the post a few days later. Here, like the Seagate example, the information provided is the same - the immediacy of the delivery is the overwhelming improvement provided be the internet.

I can’t decide if Amazon is a more useful than our local branch of Borders. In my case I use them for different things: Amazon is good if I have a list of (usually technical) books to buy whereas it’s nice to browse around the fiction (or management or travel or …) shelves at Borders.

insert conclusion here Well, perhaps if I had a conclusion…