The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, March 15, 2004

There's an interestingly-crafted article at CNET, by Richard Shim, on the current status of McDonald's proposed wi-fi hotspot offerings in its restaurants. It starts out with a field test:

Signs at a McDonald's in downtown San Francisco cordially beckon customers to surf the Web using its wireless Internet service, but no one is biting during a recent Wednesday lunch hour.

In fact, none of the 20-odd patrons scattered about the restaurant's two dining areas appears to have a laptop computer or wireless PDA on hand. A few peer over newspapers, while others talk quietly or stare out the window over trays of french fries and hamburgers.

The scene is typical, says supervisor Margie deGroot, whose restaurant near Market and Second streets became, last year, one of the first McDonald's in the country to offer wireless Net access to customers: "Why would these customers use this service when they can go back to their offices to use their computers?" she says.

So based on this opening, you'd think the rest of the story would continue to underline how iffy the prospects are for McDonald's wi-fi offering.

But inexplicably, the rest of the article goes on to tout the rosy promise of charge-per-session hotspots, hinting at established setups at other restaurants like Starbucks. It feels like a clumsy grafting; I almost suspect that the editor decided to stick the San Francisco episode at the top so that it could then be quickly dismissed. It's a clumsy attempt at spinning this into a positive, despite very little to base that on (other than the usual analyst remarks). The 6 percent figure for Schlotzky's customers who find the hotspot a compelling reason to visit is more disheartening than encouraging; 6 percent is nothing, hardly worth considering.

I still maintain, as I did a year ago, that it's a weak idea for a place like McDonald's. No one wants to hang out in a McDonald's, Web access or not. The store manager in San Fran summed it up perfectly: Why would somebody on their lunch break want to pay for wireless access when they could more comfortably do it for free at work (assuming that the risk for getting chewed out, or even fired, for goofing off on the Web in the office is "free")? It's a good idea to target road-warrior types who would actually have need to utilize this kind of access point; but those types would more readily opt for a Starbucks instead. I see this effort dying within two years.