Comparative Diffusion of the Telephone and the World Wide Web:

An Analysis of Rates of Adoption


Hsiang Chen

School of Information Studies

Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY, 13244, USA


Kevin Crowston

School of Information Studies

Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY, 13244, USA


Abstract: This paper investigates the diffusion process of the World Wide Web technology by means of a comparison with telephone diffusion at the end of the nineteenth century. The Web technology has diffused at exponentially around the world. In contrast, the telephone technology, a similar innovation of interactive communication technology imbued with typical uncertainty and impedance, took several decades to diffuse. This paper diagnoses the fundamental differences between these two innovations by analyzing their innovation perceived attributes, such as relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability and observability, and attempts to explain the determinants of their rates of adoption.


One hundred years ago, the telephone was described as "the youngest and most wonderful development of the means of communications" [Martin 1991]. In his autobiography of 1926, Watson, an important partner of Bell, stressed, "I don't believe any new invention today could stir the public so deeply as the telephone did, surfeited as we have been with the many wonderful things that have since been invented" [Watson 1926]. Today, the Web stirs the public perhaps as deeply as the telephone once did.

As a general proposition, even though the Web and the telephone are two interactive communication technologies, one new and one old, separated from each other by almost 120 years, they share some similarities. These inventions, in particular, open the doors of distributed communications, one orally and the other electronically, and allow human beings to extend their perceptions to surpass the obstacle of space. They increase the possibilities for communications and help human beings understand themselves in a more sensitive way. On the one hand, the telephone changed how we live and how we communicate. It restructured our society. The diffusion of the telephone made possible the multistory residence and office building and modern city [Brooks 1975]. On the other hand, the invention and the diffusion of Web technology created another dramatic change for human beings. It made real the concept of the global village and virtual community by creating the possibility of a universal database and the accessibility of distributed information.

Indubitably, the most significant difference between the Web and the telephone is their respective rate of adoption: the relative speed with which an innovation is adopted by individual members in a social system [Rogers 1995]. Web technology has been diffusing at an exponential growth rate, and has been establishing its bridgehead around the world in a very short period of time with little resistance. In contrast, telephone technology, a similar innovation of communication technology imbued with uncertainty and impedance, took five decades to reach 10% of the households in the United States [Fischer 1992], whereas the Web took only five years to reach the same level.

To those living in the late nineteenth century, a device to transmit actual humans voice was a completely new concept. People were scared, puzzled, and awed. Because it was invented in a relatively conservative social system, such an innovative technology took a longer time to spread out. In contrast, Web technology is compatible with its imbedded environments, builds upon the existing Internet structure, and consequent can diffuse very quickly. Of course, the fast diffusion pace of the Web innovation might be also attributed in part to the current, less conservative, social environment; but it is the nature of the innovation of the Web per se which in fact made the difference.

This paper explores and analyzes the differences of the rate of adoption between the telephone and the Web, with an ultimate aim of explaining why they differ. With the counterpoint of the telephone, by understanding their similarities and differences, this paper will then identify these determinants.


Diffusion of the Telephone

When the old technology of the telephone was new, people were in a dilemma. In the 1860s, people expected that a human being's voice could be transmitted in distance through different media but also believed that human speech was sacred and should not be carried by electricity. Thus, the very idea of the telephone generated supernatural fear and uneasiness for the public at large in the 1870s [Brooks 1975] while others thought of the telephone as a ridiculous and impractical toy. During that era, people were not able to accept the fact that a mysterious box could emit a human voice when no one was there; and this situation could only be explained by either mystical magic or insanity [Brooks 1975]. The social background and structure in the 1870s were not ripe to accept such a revolutionary technological achievement as the telephone. It is almost as if the idea of a speech-formed electric current did not cross the scientist's mind [Watson 1926].

Then, in the early days of the telephone development, it was seemingly taken to be a substitute for the Morse key, rather than a replacement for the telegraphic function itself [Garnet 1985]. In its early demonstration, even though Bell inspired awe and wonderment in public, most people remained certain that the telephone would never eclipse the widely used printing telegraph instrument [Garnet 1985]. To the business community, it seems that the telephone did not provide any tangible advantages over the existing functions of the telegraph [Garnet 1985]. People simply did not accept Bell's vision and the invention of the telephone was not seen as a threat to the telegraph by the industry itself.

In order to urge the public to accept the usage of the telephone, Bell demonstrated his "magic box" in different places to different people. In May, 1877, Bell gave his most important demonstration to Boston-area worthies. At least in Boston, the telephone had "passed out of the realm of suspected witchcraft" [Brooks 1975]. Newspaper publicity attracted people's attention, and people began to perceive the importance of the telephone [Watson 1926]. What emerged from this was that thousands of people were entirely willing to pay fifty cents to hear a lecture from Bell about how the telephone was invented and to hear how the telephone talked.

Yet, a crucial aspect was that the public had to be educated. After the initial demonstration stage, telephone salesmen inevitably had to introduce the telephone and demonstrate its utility face-to-face to potential customers. This included convincing non-English-speakers that the instrument "spoke" their languages, and that the telephone wire was not able to transmit any diseases [Fischer 1992]. For decades, most marketing experts in the telephone industry emphatically believed that to sell their product they had to find or to create uses for it. Thus, telephone entrepreneurs in the early years broadcast news, concerts, church services, weather reports, and stores' sales announcement over their lines [Fischer 1992].

In May 1877, the first experimental central exchange was opened in Boston [Brooks 1975]. Early in 1878, the usefulness of the telephone was greatly increased by the development of a workable exchange, making possible switched calls among any number of subscribers rather than merely direct connections between two or three. Late in 1879, telephone subscribers began for the first time to be designated and called by numbers rather than by their names [Brooks 1975]. The other technological advance in telephony in the 1880s was the establishment and rapid growth of long-distance service. Above all, long distance service was obviously in the public need and interest. Hence, the telephone diffusion took off and gradually linked different sectors of economic activity and became a device permeating people's daily life. By the 1920s, the telephone had reached 10% of households of the United States [Fischer 1992].


Diffusion of the Web

For several decades, human beings dreamed of the concept of a universal database of knowledge. Wells' essay on a "World Encyclopaedia" [Wells 1938] proposed the possibility of building a universally accessible archive of the entirety of human knowledge. Later, in 1945, Bush [Bush 1945] imaged a "wholly new form of encyclopedias", "with a mesh of associative trails running through them." In 1963, Weinberg [Weinberg 1963] suggested an "information transfer chain," operating like a switching system. This device would connect the user, quickly and efficiently, to the proper information and only to the proper information. Since then, organizing the knowledge of the whole world into a "world brain," [Wells 1938] and allowing everyone to retrieve from it, has been an intellectual dream in the scientific field.

Wells' "World Encyclopaedia" and Bush's "new form of encyclopedias" and Weinberg's "information transfer chain" have been realized several decades later through the implementation of the World Wide Web. Only now has the technology caught up with these dreams, making it possible to implement them on a global scale. Similar to Wells' vision of 1938, the Web was created to be a "pool of human knowledge," distributed to share human beings' ideas [Berners-Lee, et al. 1994]. Tim Berners-Lee, who might best be termed the "creator of the Web", also called this new innovation a "World Wide Brain," suggesting the analogy on grounds that "people within the Web are organized like neurons in a brain" [Berners-Lee 1997].

Berners-Lee created the technology that made the Web possible in 1990 while working for CERN. CERN is a European Particle Physics Laboratory, which is a collection of European high-energy physics researchers. The original purpose of the WWW was just to give physicists in the field of high energy the means to communicate and exchange ideas easily. He created the first World Wide Web server and the first World Wide Web client by building and combining the network protocol, HTTP (HyperText Transport Protocol), the language, HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the address system, URI (Universal Resource Identifiers) and Internet database in the server. By the end of 1990, the first piece of Web software was introduced on a NeXT machine, designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a web of hypertext documents.

Demonstrations were given to CERN committees and seminars in 1990, and made available on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991. Later, a presentation was given at the Hypertext '91 conference. Throughout 1992 Berners-Lee continued to promote the project, as several developers began to work on their own contribution to the World Wide Web. Since then, partly due to media publicity, thousands or even millions of people throughout the world have contributed their time writing Web software and documents or telling others about the Web. That is to say in a way never envisioned by the original participants in the Web, the project has reached global proportions in a very short period of time.

Seemingly, there was a snowball effect. One gains the impression that it was very difficult in the beginning to explain the potential uses of this new information technology. Since there was little information and few Web sites available to users, the snowball at least did not roll by itself in the beginning. As an interactive medium, the Web clearly must reach its critical mass point [Markus 1987] first in order to take off. At this point, in order to get the snowball going, Berners-Lee and others did their best to push this snowball. It was considered a serious turning point for the Web diffusion when Mark Andreeson in NCSA created Mosaic, a Web client application which was available on the Internet. Mosaic pushed the snowball.

Certainly, the Web has grown rapidly. The first Web server was introduced to the world in 1991. In the beginning of 1993, there were scarcely 50 Web sites around the world. Yet, in October of that year, there were over 600 known Web servers. By June 1994, there were over 2,700 servers. The number of the Web servers doubled over less than 3 months. By June 1996, there were 230,000 Web servers, and just seven months later, the figure increased by 280% to 650,000 servers. Astonishingly, the basic Web protocol has become the primary carrier of net data traffic. While the number of Web servers increased on the Internet, more users rushed into the Internet and became clients of Web technology. One major fact emerges. It was estimated that at the end of 1996, there were approximately 45 million people using the Internet (most Internet users are Web users), with roughly 30 million of those in North America, 9 million in Europe and 6 million in Asia/Pacific. What is notable is that it has been only six years since the Web was invented.


Diffusion in Rate of Adoption

All innovations are not equivalent units [Rogers 1995]. The diffusion of the telephone and the Web varies in different ways, such as the rate of adoption, features of innovation, and relevant social system. Nonetheless, among them, the rate of adoption is a significant difference between telephone technology and Web technology. The rate of adoption means the relative speed with which an innovations adopted by members of a social system. Generally it is measured by evaluating the number of individuals who adopt a new idea in a specified period of time in a social system [Rogers 1995]. To a great extent, while the snowball effect was visible in the diffusion of the Web, it was not as apparent in the diffusion of the telephone. It can be said that the diffusion of the Web easily reached its critical mass point, which allows the Web to takeoff at a considerable accelerating rate.

The differences of the rate of adoption for innovations can be explained, according to Rogers, by perceived attributes of innovations, type of innovation-decision, communication channels, nature of the social system, and extent of the change agent's promotion efforts. Among them, the perceived attributes are the most important explanation for the rate of adoption of an innovation. About 49 to 87 percent of variance of the rate of adoption can be interpreted by the five innovation characteristics of perceived attributes: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability [Rogers 1995].

This section focuses on the perceived attributes of the telephone and the Web, aiming to explain the differences in the rate of adoption between these two innovations. Usually, Web technology can be divided into Web servers and Web users, and so does its rate of adoption. This study compares only the rate of adoption of Web users with the rate of adoption of the telephone. The diffusion of the potential Web servers is not discussed here.

Relative advantage

Relative Advantage can be explained as the benefits and the costs resulting from adoption of an innovation. The fact of the matter is that the degree of relative advantage is often expressed as economic profitability, social prestige, or other benefits [Rogers 1995].

1. Cost-benefit: The telephone, in its initial diffusing stage, was not a universal service, and its installation fee and usage fee were not affordable to the majority of potential users. The Web, on the contrary, while contributing additional functionality to current devices, does not increase the users' burden too much. In short, while both technologies can extend the human body's perception by reducing the obstacles in space, adopting Web technology does not cause economic disturbance in households or individuals while the telephone did. Besides, much Internet traffic is generated by academic institute, such as universities, where the Internet connection are free for students and staffs and computers are already in wide use. The adoption of the Web by the institutions incurs virtually no additional costs.

2. Preventive innovations: Usually, a preventive innovation has a slower rate of adoption because its relative advantage is more difficult to be noticed by individuals in a social system [Rogers 1995]. Adopting Web technology can obtain the advantages and benefits of the WWW for accessing distributed information immediately while adopting the telephone in the initial stage, which supported only point-to-point communication, might not be able to obtain the potential advantages, such as long distance calls or switched connection calls. For beneficial consequences, Web technology has a short time interval, and the telephone, a long one.


Compatibility is the degree to which an innovation is realized by individuals as consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters [Rogers 1995]. A more compatible idea in a social system is less problematic to the potential adopter and does not cause contradictory situations in the individual's life [Rogers 1995].

1. Values and Beliefs: At the time the telephone was invented, people and scientists did not believe that human speech could be transmitted through electricity. They also rejected the idea of the telephone because of a feeling that a human's voice was the gift of God and should not be transferred into electricity. The very idea of the telephone conflicted with sociocultural values and beliefs. Web technology is a different story. Before the birth of the Web, the Internet has been used widely. As things stand now, Internet users know that they can transfer files between nodes, logon to remote computers, chat in cyberspace, post items to the newsgroups, and send electronic mails. In sum, different Internet applications and protocols have been used and accepted, such as gopher, ftp and telnet. When Web technology was finally introduced, it was not much more than simply adding another new function to the field or creating an innovation by combining previous innovations. Norms were not violated at all.

2. Previously Introduced Ideas: Telegraph had been used commonly in business when the telephone was first introduced. People were deeply imbedded with the usage of the telegraph consequently and believed that the telegraph was their right communication tool. In the business community, people were depending heavily on the printing telegraph for their commercial transaction, and the telephone could not find its place in there. In contrast, Web technology did find its place in education, business and government. People were using gopher, telnet, ftp, email and other Internet functions, and expected a better tool for more efficient communications. The introduction of Web technology was not only compatible with other functions but also enhancing the functions of Internet. Even so, Web technology provided Internet users a better environment and better usage.

3. Client Needs: In the telephone's initial diffusion stage, when uses and functions of the telephone were not clear, new uses had to be created or founding in order to sell telephones. Potential customer needs were vague at that time, especially before the central exchange and long distance call were possible. Admittedly, the Web in its initial stage was different. In a very short time, users and Web masters easily located those potential power of Web technology, and the whole Web society worked on that potentiality to meet clients' fundamental needs. Unlike the telephone, the Web society did not need to "create" client needs but to meet them.


In particular, complexity is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as relatively difficult to understand and use. Generally, the complexity of an innovation, viewed by individuals in a social system, is negatively related to its rate of adoption [Rogers 1995]. The telephone and Web technology do not vary much in their degree of complexity. At first, telephone and Web users might naturally feel awkward but their comfort level rapidly rises. To users' perspectives, both technologies are located at the simplicity side of the complexity-simplicity continuum.


It may be remarked that trialability is the degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis. In general, the trialability of an innovation, as perceived by members of a social system, is positively related to its rate of adoption [Rogers 1995]. For one thing, both technologies are in quite a high degree of trialability. In its early days, telephones were leased, and users did not need to buy the whole equipment. At most, Web technology is the same. Users can try using the Web by subscribing to the Internet connection from Internet Providers, or try it in schools.


Observability is the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. In this respect, the observability of an innovation, as perceived by members of a social system, is positively related to its rate of adoption [Rogers 1995]. But, as both the telephone and Web technologies are hardware-oriented, embodying the technology as material or physical objects, their observability is very similar. Web technology, including computers and modems, and telephone technology, including telephone device and lines, are easily apparent to users' observation.



It is clear that even though both innovations are similar, the characteristics of these two innovations are different. Such a revolutionary technology as the telephone inevitably takes a longer time to diffuse throughout a relatively conservative social system. In contrast, the World Wide Web, much more compatible with its imbedded environment, has been able to diffuse with exemplary speed. Undeniably, the most important determinants of the relatively slower diffusion pace of the telephone and the faster diffusion of the Web are the characteristics of the innovations themselves and the social and cognitive environment in which they are embedded. This paper proposes that, among the five perceived attributes normally used to interpret the precise differences among adoption rates, the two most important determinants are relative advantage and compatibility.



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