I am sitting in a Starbucks Coffee on the University of Texas campus, one of my favorite places to hang out and read or work. It occurs to me that Microsoft has scored a major marketing coup over Apple. The company just recently landed the gig of providing wireless connectivity for the Starbucks Coffee chain. Some 70% of the chain's 3,190 stores in the US (there is one block in San Francisco that actually has two stores on the same side of the street less than a hundred feet from each other) will be getting wireless connectivity through MSN in conjunction with MobileStar's wireless service. This is a space that should have been dominated by Apple and either MobileStar (which offers Mac support) or their ISP partner Earthlink.
Internet Cafés have been a mixed success at best from a commercial standpoint, but they have been popular with their customers. Stopping in to grab some coffee, get your e-mail, glance at stock prices or the value of your portfolio, or even hitting your favorite news sites is a big thing for lots of people. The problem for many café owners has been the hassles and price of installing and maintaining a computer network.
Providing Internet access for people that bring their own computers can also be problematic for these establishments. There are support issues that most are simply not equipped to deal with. "How do I make this work?" "Do you have one of those cable/jack-thingies I can use?" "This won't fit in my modem jack." These are all issues that most laptop toting users from both platforms don't understand. "What TCP/IP settings do I use?" might be the best of these questions, but is still enough to quickly make providing networks unprofitable to many such cafés.
One easy way around these issues is to just provide phone jacks for people to dial in with. Many Starbucks provide this service now, for instance. All the cafés provide is the phone line and people bring their own connection accounts. While a convenience for some, to be sure, allowing their customers to just jack into an actual network is certainly better and more of a draw for the coffee shops of the world.
The 802.11b standard, or AirPort as it is branded by Apple, is another matter. If there is an 802.11b network available (provided by an 802.11b base station of some sort), an 802.11b card, such as the AirPort card sold by Apple, can detect it, set itself up, and Boom! you are on. For those who have not had any experience with AirPort, it is truly an Insanely Great Technology, though Apple did not invent it. Better yet, it is largely cross-platform. Any 802.11b compliant network card can detect any 802.11b network unless some sort of artificial blocks are built in.
Back to Starbucks. Starbucks is largely trafficked by affluent or wannabee affluent users, many of whom are stuck in the fast lane on the Information Superhighway. It is my observation that many of these people will love having wireless Internet access while drinking their lattés and Frappucinos at Starbucks. Getting that access from Apple branded AirPort would have been a fantastic way of advertising this fantastic technology to millions of people across the country. Now, those people will get it courtesy of the Insanely Boring MSN service.
Mind you, you have to bring your own MobileStar subscription with you. MobileStar is a wireless service that uses 802.11b technology to provide their networks. They largely work by selling their services to airports, hotels, conference centers, and other such places. These subscribers can either let anyone with an 802.11b network card tap into the network, perhaps with some advertisement along the way, or let people buy access to the network. The folks at MobileStar told me that Macs would be supported and the service will work with our Airport cards, so we won't be left in the cold. With MSN controlling things however, I will personally wait to see it before I put away my parka and other cold-weather gear. It is always possible that "content will be provided by MSN" will translate into "the only place you can get to is the MSN family of sites." I would rather have a family of African Pygmy Mice slowly lick my eyes out than have my Internet surfing limited to MSN.
There is no use in crying over spilt milk, but working this deal with Starbucks would have provided a high-profile and lucrative arrangement for Apple that would have had benefits far beyond the immediate profit from providing the service itself. Wall Street would have been delighted; people would have seen Apple's technology working seamlessly in a cross-platform environment; and the Apple logo would have been streaming across the consciousness of lots of upwardly mobile folks. The business minded folks at Microsoft/MSN surely realized this and were in an infinitely better position to win this contract no matter the cost, so Apple probably never stood a chance of making it happen even if they were trying. In fact, we can hope that bidding from Apple at least jacked the price that MSN paid up by a couple of digits. It can be hoped that other opportunities will present themselves in the future because this is the type of service that can be both profitable and bring increased exposure to Apple's technologies in the real world beyond the Mac faithful.