Milliseconds That Spell Money for Tech Companies ; Faster Computer Speeds Sought as Vaccine against Tendency to Click Away

Article excerpt

For a long time, two seconds was considered the maximum that Internet users should be expected to wait. That limit is kaput, and Google and other companies are working hard to make things run faster.

Wait a second.

No, that's too long.

Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400 milliseconds -- literally the blink of an eye - - is too long, as Google engineers have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less.

"Subconsciously, you don't like to wait," said Arvind Jain, a Google director of engineering who is the company's resident speed maestro. "Every millisecond matters."

Google and other technology companies are on a new quest for speed, challenging speed gurus like Mr. Jain to make fast go faster. The reason is that data-hungry smartphones and tablets are creating frustrating digital traffic jams, as people download maps, video clips of sports highlights, news updates or recommendations for nearby restaurants. The competition to be the quickest is fierce.

People will abandon a commerce or news Web site if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds. A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.

"Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web," said Harry Shum, a computer scientist and speed specialist at Microsoft.

The performance of Web sites varies, and so do users' expectations. A person will be more patient for a video clip to load than to get a search result. But speed matters in every context, research shows. Four out of five online users will click away if a video stalls while loading.

On a mobile phone, a Web page takes a leisurely nine seconds to load, according to Google, which tracks a huge range of sites from large commerce sites to the legions of one-person bloggers. Download times on personal computers average about six seconds worldwide, and about 3.5 seconds on average in the United States. The major search engines, Google and Microsoft's Bing, are the speed demons of the Web, analysts say, typically delivering results in less than a second.

The hunger for speed on smartphones is a new business opportunity for companies like Akamai Technologies, which specializes in helping Web sites deliver services quicker. This month, Akamai plans to introduce mobile accelerator software to help speed loading of a Web site or app.

The government also recognizes the importance of speed in mobile computing. Last month, the U.S. Congress opened the door to an increase in network capacity for mobile devices, proposing legislation that would permit the auction of public airwaves now used for television broadcasts to wireless Internet suppliers.

Overcoming speed bumps is part of the history of the Internet. It's hard to remember back to the 1990s, when, as the World Wide Web became popular, and crowded, it was dubbed the World Wide Wait. …