Readers Want Wi-Fi in Their Combo Meals

By eweek  |  Posted 2003-03-25

Readers Want Wi-Fi in Their Combo Meals

Given the digestive-tract reactions often attributed to fast food, I should not be surprised that my recent column on the downside of the Wi-Fi Value Meal special generated a little bile.

Furthermore, since I wrote that column, the industry has shown that it is determined to take Wi-Fi into even more-remote restaurants, with IBM announcing that it will bring the wireless networking standard into truck stops across the nation. (This should allow our faithful Teamsters to get their bits on Route 66.)

Readers sounded off about the utility of wireless networks at express eateries as well as some speculation on McDonalds marketing motives.

Mark L. Decker writes, "Youre just plain wrong on this one. Sure, a McDonalds is hardly a comfy place to work, but neither is Starbucks when you think about it. Besides, youre missing the point. Its not about plugging your laptop into an AC outlet to recharge and spend an hour crunching spreadsheets. Thats what offices are for.

"A McHotspot is for quickly checking e-mail on your PDA while youre standing in line to place your order. Or pulling directions to your after-lunch appointment from MapQuest. These are the real killer apps for Wi-Fi. Hotspots will serve the same purpose pay phones did in the 70s. A reason, other than an empty tank or a full bladder, to pull into a gas station or fast-food restaurant while on the road. What McDonalds has wisely realized is that you might like fries with your e-mail."

Glenn P. Davies also sees Wi-Fi usage as enabling the kind of "occasionally connected" computing that Peter Coffee addresses in his eWEEK column. Glenn writes, "Maybe the purpose of the Wi-Fi locations at McDonalds is not for people to sit and surf, but rather while waiting in line or eating their burger to download e-mail or other stuff to their PDA or Wi-Fi phone. These people would then read their e-mail or enjoy whatever was downloaded after leaving McDonalds.

"This type of situation is similar to what I noticed occurring in Japan. People download/upload e-mail to/from their phones in the subway stations where they get a signal. They read and compose e-mail in the tunnels between stations. Many people do this. So if McDonalds can get in on this type of action, there may be some profit to be had."

Eat In or Take


While there certainly is a demand for such lightweight computing tasks, I dont think this is an accurate usage model for Wi-Fi. Indeed, one of the reasons it is so hard finding a place to settle down at a Starbucks is because people—often students—nest there like caffeinated canaries. Thats such a frequent phenomenon that Starbucks has introduced tables that look like they came from the local university library, complete with desk lamps. Laptops today just dont lend themselves well to the kind of spontaneous tasks these readers suggest, although Tablet PC may be taking them in that direction.

Glenn notes that Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs might provide a better model for going online in line, but currently less than a handful of PDAs come standard with Wi-Fi, which comes at a premium in terms of dollars and battery life. A PDA may well be used in the fashion they suggest, but over the next two years, youll see such snippets being acquired more through GPRS and CDMA 1x networks. Indeed, todays T-Mobile Sidekick provides this functionality far from the wafting odor of any oil vats, truly putting the "freedom" in "freedom fries."

Harry J. Hodge speculates that McDonalds may be doing it for the publicity. He writes, "While I agree the idea of setting in a McDonalds and working on my laptop makes my back and head hurt, I believe it is a great marketing strategy. As they deploy this, they are setting themselves up for so much more, for example, MacPass, Mobil SpeedPass-type functionality. A user can place an order from a PDA while in the drive-through line. (No more, And would you like to try an apple pie with that?) And how about an interactive Ronald on your laptop to entertain the kids?"

Even without Wi-Fi, McDonalds has experimented with different kinds of automated ordering systems for years. I can guarantee, though, that as long as margins stay thicker than a sesame-seed bun, theyll continue to push the apple pies. Beaming digital entertainment to the kids as part of a Happy Meal, though, may be the most creative use Ive seen proposed for installation. Im sure it would reduce the insurance premiums McDonalds has to pay on those jungle gyms it has built into many a restaurant.

Finally, heres a response straight from the horses mouth: Jan Isaksson of McDonalds Corp. writes, "McDonalds is known for being at the heart of where people work and live, so offering our customers another value—Internet access—is in my mind a great example of being a relevant choice out there. As a matter of fact, I believe that W-Fi at McDonalds (even at our Manhattan locations) will offer significant benefits such as value, speed, convenience and ease of service for todays time-pressed consumer."

I hope Jans right, but unless the company is willing to break its mold in strategic spots, its Wi-Fi users will be shedding the tears of a clown.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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