Paper cite:

    Burns, J. E. (1997) The World Wide Web: Trialablility difficulty in the diffusion of an innovation.
The American Communication Journal [On-Line] Available WWW:

© Copyright 1997, Joseph E. Burns, Ph.D.


The World Wide Web:
Trialability Difficulty in the Diffusion of an Innovation


     World Wide Web (WWW) programmers are beginning to create innovations that are beyond the means of many users' computers. This limits the testability, and possibly the adoption, of an innovation. An on-line sample of WWW users found that over half are having access problems. But the survey also shows the majority of users perceive enough relative advantage in the WWW that they are willing to upgrade in order to allow themselves testability of new innovations.

Literature Review

Before the Summer of 1995, the World Wide Web (WWW) was little more than a specialized section of the Internet connecting "pages" of information (Levy, 1996). By June of 1995, the WWW had become the new cyberspace frontier for anyone with a computer and a modem (Collins, 1996).

With its full color graphic capabilities and ease of use through web browsers such as Netscape or Mosaic, the WWW has become a magnet for the public and the business community (Washburn, 1996). Today, estimates are that the WWW is doubling its size through the addition of computer servers and new "home pages" every 53 days (Levy, 1996).

WWW growth is also being measured in terms of technology. Each month, programmers are offering the ability to run new forms of sound, motion, or video over the WWW (Kaplan, 1996). Persons already attached have to either upgrade their current computers in order to run the latest applications or be left behind.

The purpose of this paper is to focus on the growth of technology on the WWW and the ability of those already attached to upgrade and remain current with technological advancements.

Diffusion of Innovation

Rogers (1995) wrote that the diffusion of a new innovation or technology, such as the WWW, is a type of communication between the members of a group. While the people who use the WWW are not a group in the traditional sense, face to face, technology does allow for the same personal interaction, communication, and transfer of information between members that faciltiates the diffusion of innovations written of by Rogers (Agunda, 1990; Levy, 1996).

This paper will deal with persons already connected to the WWW, thus already being part of the above mentioned group. The innovation that will be discussed here is not the WWW itself, but rather new applications being offered over the WWW.

The diffusion of new programming innovations follow a similar format of diffusion as outlined by Rogers (1995); an innovation, such as a new sound application, is disseminated through certain channels, in this case the WWW, over time, to members of a social system (Valente, 1993). WWW users are often referred to as members of a social system, even by the users themselves. The term "internet community" is prevalent on the WWW (W3C, 1996).

Rogers (1995) noted that there are five factors that affect the adoption rate of an innovation; relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. All five are important and do apply, but the concepts of trialability, the ability to test a new innovation, and relative advantage, the perceived advantage that can be gained by adopting an innovation, are what will be discussed in this paper.

The WWW is a series of computers that have a decentralized nature and as such, there are currently no regulations demanding that all programming advancements be backwardly compatible (Wagner, 1996a; Metcalfe, 1996). Because of this, advancements are beginning to be incorporated into the WWW that current users are unable to run (Pontin & Quinlan, 1996; Venditto, 1996). This lack of trialability in terms of WWW applications may quickly hamper growth and ward off new users (Barnett, Fink & Debus, 1989).

It may appear as if this is more of a problem with compatibility rather than trialability. It is not. The new programming that is being offered over the WWW is compatible with current machines. Rogers (1995) used the term "compatability" in terms of an innovation being compatible with one's lifestyle. Here, the term must denote the compatibilty of a technical innovation's ability to be compatible with the hardware already in use. Innovations are most always offered in both PC and Macintosh formats (The Net 50, 1996). The reason for a user not being able to run a new programming innovation is that the innovation requires more power or space than the user's current computer can provide. In terms of computation, this is a problem with trialability rather than compatibility.

The World Wide Web

Rogers (1995) wrote that an innovation has two components, hardware and software. The hardware is the tool that enables the user to use, or try, the software innovation. In terms of the WWW, it appears as if software innovations may be moving beyond the current hardware, causing trialability problems.

Until May of 1995, the hardware component of the WWW (computers and peripherals) owned by the majority of users would run all of the then current software innovations available. An IBM Windows platform was the preferred operating system (Datamation, 1996). Trialability was as easy as downloading, for free, a new piece of software and installing it on a computer (Netscape, 1995,, 1996).

In May of 1995, Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced he was turning his company's focus toward the Internet (Levy, 1996). In addition, Microsoft endorsed a new programming language, Java, that would run on the new Windows 95 operating system but not on the older, more heavily used, Windows 3.x platform. (Hayes, 1996).

Java is a programming language created by James Gosling of Sun Microsystems (The Net 50, 1996). The language allows for WWW users to download pages that offer graphical motion that could include everything from scrolling stock quotes updated every few minutes to simple Java "applets" that provide full motion video (Venditto, 1996).

Java is being heralded as the future of the WWW (Simons, 1996). Articles regarding commerce and technology are claiming that Java will be the programming language used almost exclusively for motion video (Moeller, 1996a; Nash, 1996; Washburn, 1996).

The problem with Java becoming the standard of the WWW is that it is not compatible with most of the current computers used to browse the WWW (Visual Tools ease Java..., 1996). In order for some users to run applets, more than a software upgrade is needed. The upgrade will have to be hardware (LaMonica, 1996). Any person currently using an IBM compatible computer will have to upgrade to, at least, Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system.1 In many cases, in order to run Windows 95, a 32-bit 2 operating system, a new hardware upgrade will be required as Windows 95 has certain computer requirements to run properly (Staff, 1996). Even some Macintosh users, who already run a 32-bit operating system, will have to upgrade to a newer version to run the Java applets (Venditto, 1996).

For most, the trialability of a WWW innovation is no longer only a free download of software. Now the WWW is beginning to offer innovations that require purchasing new commercial software or new hardware all together.

Java is not the only new innovation beginning to move beyond the current means of users. RealAudio is a sound format, invented by Rob Glaser, that allows for almost instantaneous sound reproduction (The Net 50, 1996). Currently RealAudio offers both 16- and 32-bit platforms that will play sounds already in the RealAudio format. But if one wishes to create RealAudio sounds for their own purposes, certain hardware restrictions apply. Any computer containing a central processing unit (CPU) without a math co-processor cannot use the software that creates the sound format (RealAudio Home Page, 1996). This includes a great many computers with CPU models before the Intel 486DX 3 (486ES Personal Computer, 1993).

Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) is a programming language that allows for three-dimensional images over the WWW (Wagner, 1996c). The VRML home page offers free downloads of software in order for users to try the application, but some restrictions are placed on the use of that software (VRML Home Page, 1996).

VRML will run using current 16-bit operating systems such as Microsoft Windows 3.x. However, the operating system must be running at a CPU speed of 50Mhz or better VRML Home Page, 1996). That means that a computer must contain at least a 486 CPU to run the programming. A computer containing a lesser CPU will have to have a hardware upgrade (Wagner, 1996d).

In addition to having to upgrade in order to run existing software, users of the WWW are beginning to be faced with having to upgrade their Internet connection. The WWW is slowing down (Hafner & Croal, 1996; McMurray, 1996). In 1995, a modem with a speed of 14,400 bits per second (bps or baud) 4 was the state of the art while today, a modem speed of 28,800 baud is common and speeds of 33,600 and 56kps baud are currently being offered (McMurray, 1996).

Even using the fastest modems available, in order to run an 800 kilobyte Java program, available at the Java WWW Home Page, requires a full two minutes to download (Venditto, 1996). Those experienced with the WWW know that browsing often includes long periods of time waiting for larger and larger programs to load (Wagner, 1996b, Wagner, 1996e).

Software and hardware advancements like those above will surely continue unabated. Companies such as Netscape and Microsoft continue to offer larger and better functioning WWW browsers that are intended to recognize and run new applications (Battey, 1996; Kalin & Parsons, 1996; Moeller, 1996a; Nash, 1996).

Programming companies must currently create software that runs over six different operating system platforms, some of which may soon be obsolete on the Internet due to inability to run applications (Chameleon Tracks, 1995). Even programming specifically created for the same tasks offer different formats that work with different operating systems (Moeller, 1996b).

In the field of broadcasting, as new technologies emerged bettering current technology, such as color television or FM radio, regulations were put in place to ensure that the products already in the market place were not made obsolete by the new innovation (At the End..., 1950; Head & Sterling, 1980; Inglis, 1990). This is not the case with the WWW. But even a government regulation such as the ones noted above would not quell technological advancements. The WWW is a series of computers through many different countries. An American regulation would not apply everywhere. It will be up to the Internet community to police itself, and opinions on such policing are diametrically split.

Snyder (1996) and Curry (1996) both warn against the creation of WWW Home Pages that take too long to download or offer items that cannot be universally run by existing computers as it will hamper people using existing technologies to view a new Home Page. Washburn (1996) disagrees writing that restrictions could only keep the Internet from being a business success. Mark Gibbs, head of an Internet consulting firm in Ventura, California wonders why people are still complaining about not being able to use the WWW with greater ease. He states that people should simply "...bite the bullet and learn how to use it" (Mohan, 1996, p. 68). This attitude will surely pave the way for more intricate and larger programming innovations.

In order for someone to accept a new innovation they must first be able to test it (Rogers, 1983). The creation of new applications that require a monetary investment may stop some people from taking the steps required to test Java or VRML or any new innovations are soon to be released. Technological innovations that do not take into account current user levels of testability may soon allay the enormous growth of the WWW by moving beyond the testability of its users.

It is only recently that WWW applications began to move past the means of many of its users. This study will discuss what impact the lack of testability is having, if any, now. Also it offered insight into whether current users of the WWW willing to make the commitment to upgrade to test new innovations.


A purposive survey was conducted by posting a questionnaire on an academic WWW server in order to gather data from respondents already using the WWW. The questionnaire was sure to contact current users as one would have had to be using the WWW to answer the questions. Users were lead to the questionnaire through hypertext links on a popular WWW tutorial site. The questionnaire was posted for five days and written so respondents could enter answers to the screen and then forward completed questionnaires by clicking on a hypertext button. Both closed end and open ended questions were offered using radio buttons, checkbox buttons, and text areas.

Completed questionnaires were gathered in an email directory and compiled by entering the data onto a spreadsheet. A copy of the questionnaire appears in Appendix A.


A total of 385 viable questionnaires were forwarded from the WWW site. Questionnaires forwarded from a U.S. state accounted for 310 (80%) responses. The states were well distributed including responses from Alaska and Hawaii. No one section of the United States dominated the survey. Seventy-five (20%) questionnaires were received from outside the United States with Canada (33 responses) being responsible for the majority.

The demographics of the survey were in line with the demographics found in a 1995 Nielsen Ratings Service sample of U.S. and Canadian WWW users (Nielsen Interactive Services, 1996a).

The majority of this study's respondents were male, 73%. Age demographics showed most respondents to be between the ages of 16 and 25, see Table 1.

Table 1

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Age Demographics for Total Survey

Age N %
Under 15 8 2%
16-25 145 38%
26-35 127 33%
36-45 58 15%
46-55 37 10%
55 or above 10 3%
Total 385 --
Note. Percentages are rounded up.

Respondents were asked if they had ever encountered programming on the WWW that their computer could not run. Most, 214 (56%), answered that they had. Respondents cited software reasons for not being able to run an application 118 times (55%). Hardware was mentioned 95 times (44%) and 11 respondents (1%) could not offer a reason for the inability of their computer to run an application. The breakdown of individual software and hardware responses appear in Table 2.

Table 2

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Breakdown of Why Respondents Could Not Access an Item on the WWW

Problem With N %
Browser 46 22%
Graphical Reproductiona 35 16%
Sound Reproduction 27 13%
General Software 7 3%
VRML Software 3 1%
Sound Card 27 13%
CPUb 27 13%
System Compatibility 13 6%
Server Problems 13 6%
MPEG Moviec 8 4%
Memory 1 .5%
Encoding 1 .5%
No Answer 6 2%
Total 214 --
Note. Percentages are rounded up.

aThis included not having the software available to see any type of image including movies.

bNot having enough computational power to run an application

cDid not have enough computational power or the current hardware to run an MPEG movie. These were hardware problems as opposed to not having correct software.

Most of the respondents, 346 (90%) used a personal computer in order to browse the WWW. Of those, 109 (32%) have already made an upgrade to their computer specifically to use the WWW. Hardware upgrades were mentioned 72 times (66%) with a faster modem being the most mentioned upgrade. Software upgrades were mentioned 31 times (28%) with a WWW browser upgrade mentioned most. Four respondents (4%) did not mention what upgrade they performed. A breakdown of all upgrades appears in Table 3.

Table 3

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Breakdown of Upgrade Respondents Made In Order to Access an Item on the WWW

Upgrade N %
Browser 26 24%
Software 4 4%
RealAudio 1 1%
Modem 34 31%
More Memory 14 13%
New Computer 13 12%
Ethernet Hardware 3 3%
Sound Card 3 3%
Video Card 3 3%
CPU 1 1%
Scanner 1 1%
Monitor 1 1%
No Answer 4 4%
Total 109 --
Note. Percentages are rounded up.

The 346 respondents that had a home computer were asked if they would upgrade if they encountered, in the future, something their computer could not run. Most, 297 (86%), answered that they would. Forty-nine (14%) answered they would not. The 297 respondents who answered that they would upgrade were then asked what type of upgrade they would be willing to do. Respondents were given four choices each increasing the amount of money they would need to spend, see Appendix A.

Results showed most were willing to spend between $500 and $3000. Twenty-nine percent answered that they would be willing to purchase a new computer to be able to continue browsing the WWW. The breakdown of upgrades appears in Table 4.

Table 4

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Upgrades Respondents are Willing To Do In Order to Continue Using the WWW

Upgrade N %
Software ($100-$200) 37 13%
Internal Chips ($201-$500) 86 29%
Both Software and Chips ($501-$1000) 87 29%
New Computer ($1001-$3000) 87 29%
Total 297 --
Note. Percentages are rounded up.

      The percentage of those who had already upgraded (N=109), and would upgrade again to continue to browse the WWW is higher than that of the entire sample, 99 (91%) answered they would upgrade again and 10 (9%) answered they would not. Again, those who said they would upgrade mentioned the highest monetary upgrades most often. A breakdown of the upgrades mentioned appear in Table 5.

Table 5

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Respondents Who Answered That They Had Already Upgraded but Would Upgrade Again In Order to Continue Using the WWW and What Upgrades They Would Make.

Upgrade N %
Software ($100-$200) 19 19%
Internal Chips ($201-$500) 18 18%
Both Software and Chips ($501-$1000) 33 33%
New Computer ($1001-$3000) 29 29%
Total 99 --

All respondents were asked if they believed the WWW might soon offer applications that their computers would be unable to run. Results showed 198 (51%) did not while 186 (49%) did. One respondent did not know.

All respondents were then asked if they would be in favor of a set of government regulated configuration standards that insured that current computers will run WWW applications into the future. Most, 293 (76%) answered they were against enforced standards. Ninety-two (24%) answered they were.

The two reasons offered most for being against imposed regulations were a fear of regulations slowing technological growth and a general dislike of government regulations. There is reason to believe that the wording of the question influenced the results. Many noted dislike of government intervention alone. Had the question not suggested a "government" regulation, results may have differed.

The most offered reasons for being in favor of imposed regulations included allowing access for all people (13 responses), not having to spend money in order to upgrade again (11 responses) and ensuring backwards compatibility (11 responses).

The most offered response to why a respondent was for or against imposed regulations was no response.

The questionnaires were then broken into two sections, those that have already had problems accessing something on the WWW and those that had not. Percentages were then tallied for the main survey questions. Results appear in Table 6.

Table 6

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Comparison of Responses to Major Survey Questions, in Yes Answer Percentages, Between Those Respondents Who Had No Problem Accessing an Item on the WWW and Those Respondents That Had.

  Trouble Accessing on WWW
Question Yes No
Have You Already Upgraded In Order to Browse the WWW? 33%a 22%
If You Have Already Upgraded, Will You Upgrade Again? 94% 84%
Will You Upgrade At All? 78% 76%
Do You Believe In the Future the WWW Will Offer an Item Your Current Computer Will Not Be Able To Run? 35% 39%
Are You For Regulation Insuring Backwards Compatibility 21% 28%

aNumbers represent percentages of Yes responses.

Results show that a higher percentage of those who had not been able to access an application on the WWW were more likely to have already upgraded and possibly upgrade again. The percentages differed at least 10 percent. The two groups offered similar response rates as to whether they would upgrade in the future (78% and 76%) and whether they believed the WWW will offer an innovation soon that their computers will not run (35% and 39%).

Results of the percentages of those in favor of regulation show that those who have not already had problems accessing an item on the WWW were those most in favor of a government regulated set of standards (21% to 28%).


In order for a user to accept and begin using a new innovation available through the WWW, there has to be an element of trialability (Rogers, 1995). In addition, there has to be a want to try the new innovation.

Results of this purposive survey suggest that a large percentage of early WWW users are already beginning to experience some difficulty in running the innovations currently available. Over half of the purposive sample (56%) were unable to run a WWW application.

Yet, for the most part, respondents perceive the innovations they encounter on the WWW as having a strong enough relative advantage that they are willing to make the changes necessary to allow themselves trialability.

Table 3 shows the upgrades that 109 respondents have already made to their computers in order to run, or test, certain WWW innovations. While some of the upgrades were free software, 73 upgrades were hardware and required a monetary investment for a piece of equipment. Most of the people who had already made upgrades to their computers were the people who reported having problems accessing something on the WWW.

Table 4 shows that 86% of the respondents that own a home computer reported that they would make upgrades to their computer system in order to run, or test, a new innovation. When asked what type of upgrade respondents were willing to make, most claimed they would spend over $500. Eighty-seven reported they would go as far as replacing their current computer, see Table 4.

Table 5 suggests that current WWW users would be willing to upgrade more than once. Of those respondents that have already upgraded, 91% noted that they would upgrade again, and the possible upgrades noted by these respondents were the two most expensive choices. Twenty-nine would replace their already-upgraded computer with a new computer to continue to test WWW innovations.

The possible upgrades noted by respondents must be taken cautiously. Baldwin & Mizerski (1985) wrote that asking respondents the amount of money they would spend in a survey might not give a true representation of respondent action. Results may have been different had the respondent been under an obligation to actually purchase the upgrades they reported.

Results also suggest that current users are aware of WWW technology advancing to the point where their computers may not be able to run applications. Close to half of this sample (48%) reported knowing of a new WWW item that their computers would not run. Yet the results above suggest most will probably make the upgrades required to run the applications.

As stated before, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to place a set of governmental standards in order to regulate the forward movement of WWW technology. However, almost one-forth of this sample noted they would be in favor of such a set of regulations. Of those in favor of regulation, most were respondents who had not experienced a problem running an innovation on the WWW.

The above discussion might suggest that the people who are most inclined to upgrade do not see their upgrading as a hindrance, but rather as a necessity. Persons who are able to connect to the WWW are those who have a computer. This already places them in a specialized category. Nielsen reports that only 39% of household have computers (Nielsen Interactive Services, 1996b). These are the people that have already made the decision that computers, and the WWW, have a relative advantage for them. Upgrading their computer investment may be seen as increasing one's abilities rather than a useless output of money or time. What the WWW is offering is something the users in this survey want to continue to receive. And they are willing to make the changes needed to continue testing the new innovation the WWW offers.

In order for the WWW to continue its growth, sustaining current users is not enough. New users must make the commitment to attach themselves (Johnson, 1996). Scores of new Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are advertising to capture some of what industry analysts predict will be over 28 million new WWW users by the year 2000 (Wagner, 1996c; War of the Web, 1996). But ISP advertisements often discuss prices for time alone and do not state what size or power computer one should have to operate in the WWW. This may present a problem as new people attach to the internet. There is no guarantee that the newer users will be as inclined to upgrade as current users, but Rogers (1995) suggests that if current users are inclined to accept new innovations, newer users could be influenced to do the same.

Those already using the WWW are what Rogers (1983, p. 231) termed "early adopters." They are the first group of people to test an innovation. Nielsen reports that only 16% of all people 12 years of age or older have ever used the Internet (Nielsen Interactive Services, 1996b). This includes the people who answered this survey and this may be good news for the ISPs advertising for market share. Newer users will tend to accept an innovation faster if older users have first tried, and accepted the new innovation.


The results of this purposive sample suggest that a majority of current WWW users have begun to experience hardware and software problems when attempting to test new innovations. The growth of new technology is beginning to move beyond the capacity of some current computers. Results also suggest that current users of the WWW are willing to make the software or hardware upgrades required to allow themselves the opportunity to test new innovations.

The WWW is experiencing tremendous growth and in order to sustain that growth, new users must be brought into the fold. What remains to be seen is whether the millions of new users predicted by industry analysts will find the same relative advantage as current users or, like 49 of the current users in this survey, will not be willing to upgrade and allow newer technologies and possibly the WWW to advance without them.

Results also suggest that the current users of the WWW may have an influence in the current speed at which new technological innovations are created. Companies would be less willing to continue to create new innovations for a market that has not accepted or purchased their new innovations in the past. If WWW users were not as inclined to upgrade as this survey suggests than the creators of new technologies might not offer newer innovations as quickly, or be more concerned about backwards compatibility.

This study dealt specifically with the testability aspect of Rogers' Diffusions of Innovations. In terms of mass communication theory, the innovations of the WWW offer a tremendous new avenue for the theory.


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1An operating system is a program or group of programs that enable a computer's separate components to work together. Examples of an operating system are Microsoft Windows, DOS, and Macintosh OS.

2A 32-bit system is one that possesses 32-bit busses between the computer's central processing unit (CPU) and its components and peripherals. A 16-bit system is one that allows for a 16-bit bus between the CPU and the computer's components and peripherals.

3The numbers 486, 486DX, and 386 all refer to versions of Intel CPU model numbers. The CPUs are later models as the numbers increase.

4A modem's bps rating (or baud) denotes the amount of data that modem can change from analog (from phone lines) to digital (meaning binary computer language) in one second. It is often referred to an a download speed.

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Appendix A.

Questionnaire Posted to the WWW for this Study

Survey of the World Wide Web and Its Technology

     Please take the time to fill out this survey. You may leave your name and email address if you wish but it is not required. Thank you in advance for doing this. Please check back after March. I hope to have the results of this survey available to you then.

1. Enter your name (optional)

2. Enter your Email address (optional)

3. Are You:     Male     Female

4. Your age is:     Under 15 16-25    26-35    36-45    46-55    56 or above   

5. Where are you right now? Please denote state if in U.S. and country if outside U.S.

6. When you surf the World Wide Web, do you use: (check all that apply)

Personal Computer

Business Computer

School Computer

Public Computer

7. Have you ever encountered something on the World Wide Web that you could not access?

Yes No

8. If Yes, please tell me below what you were not able to access.

9. Have you ever had to upgrade your computer in order to access something on the World Wide Web?

Yes No

10. If Yes, please tell me below what upgrade you made.

11. Also, please tell me for what reason you made the upgrade.

12. If the World Wide Web advanced to the point where your current computer could not run some of the applications, would you spend money to upgrade your computer?

Yes No

13. If Yes, how much of an upgrade would you be willing to make?

Software ($100-$200)

Internal Chips ($201-$500)

Both Software and Chips ($501-$1000)

Whole New Computer ($1001-$3000)

14. Do you believe the World Wide Web will soon offer items that your current computer does not posses the ability to run?

Yes No

15. If Yes, What have you heard about that your computer might not run?

16. Would you support a government imposed set of configuration standards that insure that computers owned right now will run all World Wide Web applications into the future?

Yes No

17. Why did you answer Yes or No?

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