Kiosks and smart ATM's could bring Internet to the masses.

A customer at the Long Beach Court House avoids long lines at the clerk's office. Photo by Michael Goulding

Mohammed won't come to the mountain. That is, about 80 percent of the nation still hasn't sampled the Internet.

But what if going online were as simple as touching a screen? If there were no http:// or @? If you could log on from a street corner?

This summer, 150,000 Olympic village residents will test that vision, using computer networks from multimedia kiosks. These standalone terminals will list real-time event results, restaurant menus and maps of Atlanta.

In hotels, airports and malls nationwide, similar kiosks are spreading like pollen. Engineers have moved the mountain to the masses.

“This is the intermediate step before retail shopping at home,” says Alisa Behne, director of sales for touch-screen developer MicroTouch Systems Inc. “Most computer illiterate people cannot use a mouse. The kiosk basically trains people to use the Internet.”

Methuen, Mass.-based MicroTouch is providing the screens for 1,800 IBM kiosks at this summer's Games, one of the largest single rollouts for such devices.

At the Olympics, as with other tests from Miami to Long Beach, the Internet is helping to fuel kiosk popularity. Previously, most terminals were CD-ROM-based, with no phone connections to other computers, says Paul Gillin, editor of Computerworld magazine.

“In order to do anything that was timely, you needed to constantly replace the CD-ROM,” he adds. “With a live connection to the Internet, information is always up-to-date and can be changed in one place.”

Though some information terminals were introduced in hotels and music stores in the 1980s when automated teller machines became popular, the last three years have seen an explosion. Sales of the technology jumped from $50 million to $200 million since 1992, with about 400,000 kiosks nationwide, according to industry estimates.

Research firm Frost & Sullivan Inc. says interactive terminals generated $876.3 million in revenue in 1993, and that number should jump to $3.59 billion by 1999.

The cost of developing the machines also has dropped. CD-ROM-based machines cost almost $100,000. With a basic computer and Internet hookup, today's kiosks run about $10,000. These terminals can access either a private network of information, or link to the same World Wide Web sites Internet users see on their home computers.

Though some formatting changes are needed for a Web site to properly work with a touch screen (MicroTouch uses a browser program called Prospector with big, friendly buttons), many businesses have already invested in basic Internet content.

Remote kiosks increase exposure, broaden audiences, but most of all, save money fast.

“They replace salaried employees,” says Dale Kennedy, president of Little Rock-based kiosk manufacturer NewMedia Solutions. “The bottom line is always money.”

Much in the way bank tellers were replaced by ATMs, kiosks are ubiquitous, bilingual and don't require benefits or overtime.

They're also multifunctional. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the Miami Herald, the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others erected dozens of kiosks throughout Florida to provide relief information. During South Africa's first free elections, kiosks described the process, as well as the platforms of 19 political parties, to 16 million new voters. In Long Beach, residents can pay municipal fines on a city-sponsored network.

At the Summer Olympics, visitors can read weather reports in a dozen languages, or search for local eateries by cuisine.

Banks, pioneers of remote terminals, aren't ignoring the multimedia trend. So-called Smart ATMs can cash checks to the penny, provide Web-like access to account information and allow users to buy tickets to theaters and sporting events. Machines are expected to be tested in Florida and other areas later this year.

Financial institutions have an advantage over retailers, considering ATMs already have a payment mechanism. But Behne says it's only a matter of time before kiosk manufacturers start including magnetic swipes to read ATM or credit cards. Using a mall terminal, consumers can shop by mail, browse an interactive catalog or make restaurant reservations, she says.

IBM spokesman Jay Cadmus says if this summer's test is successful, the 2000 Olympics will have kiosks accessible to all visitors. And as the postal service, hotels and other agencies show more interest, the company may target more than special events.

Kennedy takes it one step further. She sees kiosks replacing most receptionists in walk-in offices and even supplementing the pay-phone network with remote E-mail terminals.

“Like ATMs, they'll become indispensable,” she says. “People can immediately get the information they need.”

News researcher Penny Love contributed to this report.