Surfing on the Fly

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted May 01, 2001
by Michele Marrinan

Plugging in away from the office has never been that convenient, but technology companies are working to make connecting on the fly an easier proposition. Two recently announced approaches may have an impact on the restless businessman, or not.

PowerPhone Network Limited, a Hong Kong-based developer of multimedia, interactive payphones, has already placed some in three East Coast airports: New York's John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, and New Jersey's Newark airport. Users can hook up their laptops or simply log on using the phone's touch-tone screen. They can then check e-mail, send voice attachments, or make travel arrangements. PowerPhone plans to eventually put the phones in every international airport in the United States. They're already in airports throughout Asia.

Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at the Gartner Group, an IT industry research firm, sees a lot of potential for these interactive payphones. "You pay $9 or $10 for high speed access in a place where you normally don't have an office." he says. "Then you can load up on e-mail, get on the plane, and get some work done."

Ron Gerber, chairman and CEO of Angelbeat, a wireless technology consultancy, has reservations. "They offer in the short term a very useful scenario, where people in between flights can check e-mail," he says. "In the long term cell phones and other devices will be very well suited for doing wireless e-mail without being restricted to a specific place."

Gerber is also skeptical about the business applications of a deal to bring high-speed, wireless Internet connectivity to every company-owned Starbucks in North America beginning in late spring. The famed coffee chain has signed a deal with Microsoft Corp. for content and services and hired MobileStar Network Corp. to deploy its wireless broadband T1 network. Because the network is wireless, surfers will be able to sit anywhere while logging onto the Internet with their laptop, smart phone, or other handheld device.

Gerber expects the Starbucks network to be more appealing to consumers than small business owners. Professionals want to stay on top of their e-mail messages in much the same way as they check voice mail. Few need to download large files through wireless devices. If the file's not saved on their laptop, it can usually wait until they get back to their hotel or office.

"I think it's got a reasonable chance of succeeding. It's another way to drive more coffee purchases at Starbucks because people will stay there longer," Gerber says. "At the very least, there is less customer uncertainty because Starbucks knows that lots of people use laptops at their stores."

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