Ronald McDonald to save Wi-Fi

Send in the Clowns

Help is at hand, Wi-Fi revolutionaries. Afraid that the bubble has burst? Anxious that figures of two users per day per Starbucks suggest that few punters are rich enough, or idle enough, to use expensive Internet access? Worried that 802.11 won't make the earth move for Joe Sixpack in the way it clearly did - and what an orgasm! - for Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson?

Fear not. Ronald McDonald has arrived - and just in time. The colorful clown waved his magic wand today, and with the help of Intel and Wayport, launched 802.11 into 75 Bay Area locations. No fewer than four CNET reporters were in attendance - perhaps they were as excited as we were to get so close to this American icon. Because there is only one Ronald McDonald at any one time - he told The Register. "Just like there's only one Santa Claus," confirmed a McDonalds PR.

In line with its new salad range, McDonald wants to go upscale. It's as simple as that: attracting a more affluent customer. The junk food franchise, which concentrates on getting customers in and out of what it calls "restaurants" as quickly as possible, probably has some grand ambitions. At this rate, the marketing people probably envisage some really fancy product placement: perhaps they can see Keanu Reeves opening a McSushi in Matrix V!

The locations tell us something about the chain's ambitions. Very few of the 75 locations are in the East Bay, and none at all in working class Oakland. We asked Intel if the boyz in the hood would really be hanging there for the 802.11? "Eventually," we were told, "maybe not with the PowerBooks."

Ubiquity and quality
Unbiquity and quality: Ronald McDonald and Intel's Donald MacDonald

"McDonalds stands for ubiquity and quality," said Donald MacDonald (no, really), Intel's director of marketing for its mobile products.

In addition to fast turnover - on both sides of the counter - McDonalds has another disadvantage as a WiFi location: it appeals to the impulse punter. By definition, the kind who hasn't packed his G4 Titanium Powerbook, and spare battery (there will be no additional power outlets at the burger outlets). One strike against WLANs is 'The Rabbit scenario' - getting to a hotspot = and impulsive types want their fix there and then.

All parties were extremely coy about revenue sharing - that won't be a major problem if there's no revenue - and costs. T-Mobile is taking a bath on WiFi right now, because each Starbucks has a T1 line in. The Bay Area Maccy-Ds will be equipped with a much cheaper 384 kbits/s DSL connection.

Right now, it's all rather experimental.

Once the trial is over, "We'll put our heads together and design a business model from that point on," said a McDonalds executives. Just like in the good old days of the Internet bubble: throw money around first, then wonder how you're going to recoup it. Even the salads might not be enough to tempt me from my Cup-A-Joe, which gives me 802.11 access for nothing.

The cellular networks are having a devil of a job persuading customers that "the Internet" is worth paying for on phones. When most people don't have laptops, that task is even more daunting. The WiFi bubble is probably the last throw of the dice by Wintel to persuade us that mobile data will be delivered in expensive, cumbersome and hard to use PCs rather than cheap, small and easy to use handheld devices, or "phones" as they're called in Europe.

Around the corner a terrible threat is looming: low or no-cost data. All you can eat data prices are falling, and soon they'll be (capacity permitting) delivering always on bandwidth at low cost to a mass market. It isn't hard to guess who'll win this one, assuming there's anything (ie, real money) to "win"?

Ronald McDonald goes Centrino
Do you think he has a weblog?

What Intel's affable Mr McDonald, whose job it is to stimulate demand for Intel's MPG division, needs isn't cheaper Centrino laptops but compelling applications: there's still plenty you can do on a PC that you can't do on a smartphone. ®

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