You climb into a cab on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, heading for Midtown. The driver flips the meter on. In heavy midday traffic, you watch the meter click off the dollars, even as you watch pedestrians on the sidewalk passing you by. Then you notice the cabbie’s sign: No Credit Cards, Cash Only. And that old Dylan line rings in your ears: “He wants eleven dollar bills; you only got ten.”
It’s annoying – but you remember too late, “Why didn’t I just Uber it?” Uber: simple, elegant, efficient – you know exactly how much it will cost and when you’ll be picked up. Billed directly to your account. No watching meters, no cash, no surprises.
Web conferencing pioneer and market leader WebEx used to bill by the minute. Services like this – part software and part telecommunications – are complex and costly to operate. But conscious of that “taxi’s” meter, WebEx customers were hesitant to use this service in fear of running up big and unpredictable bills. As a result, while costs were covered, usage lagged – and so did revenue.
So WebEx took a leap of faith: unlimited usage – all the meetings you want for a flat monthly fee. WebEx customers embraced this change; more WebEx meetings meant more sales for them. And the big worry, costs, were kept in check; for as soon as usage started skyrocketing, efficiencies of scale drove costs down and revenue and profits soared as meetings multiplied. The competition was forced to follow suit, but without the efficiencies WebEx scale enjoyed. Fast forward a few years and Cisco buys WebEx for over $3 billion.
As humans, we love simplicity. While McDonald’s set the standard for a simple, basic menu with limited choices, it evolved to a dizzying array of choices in an attempt to capture multiple lifestyles and diet preferences. And while the fare at McDonald’s is hardly unlimited, its continued business success would certainly imply that choice is good for business.
But then the iconic In-N-Out Burger, schooled in McDonald’s’ original vision of a basic and unadorned menu, which boasts a virtually continuous stream of cars and customers is testimony to the success of this simple formula of stripped-down options.
Simplicity and unlimited – strange bedfellows or peanut butter and chocolate?
To answer that, let’s compare the taxis and burgers with Wi-Fi. Today, Wi-Fi is anything but simple. It’s free, right? Sure, it can be – as long as you can hunt down a password, are willing to be subjected to tacky online ads or videos, relinquish your email address to insure a steady stream of spam, and … you get the idea. “Free” Wi-Fi can be very expensive. And that’s before you realize that your laptop has been hacked on an unsecure “free” hot spot.
Then there’s in-flight Wi-Fi. Nothing free (or even inexpensive) about that. Or hotels. Just pull out that MasterCard again. But don’t worry: pretty soon you’ll have that 16-digit number memorized.
There are millions and millions of hot spots around the word – yet hardly the simple, hands-off, invisible experience we expect from cellular data.
We could argue that the high-tech industry practically invented free. Open source software – free apps, free VoIP calls – it’s like the 21st century’s version of Jefferson Airplane: “… free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music.” And free Linux, right? (So how come Red Hat is worth $14 billion?)
The point is, “free” will always work for a segment of the population – the segment that has unlimited time, unlimited patience or an unlimited tolerance for risk. The rest of us are more than willing to pay for convenience, service, support and security.
Which brings us back to that tentative alliance between unlimited and simplicity. We live in a connected world. We’ve become addicted to information. Entertainment is an entitlement, 24/7, mobile and global. We demand connectivity. But 3G/4G roaming can be painfully slow while it drains consumers’ bank accounts.
Net “natives” expect connectivity as the birthright of the mobile age. As a result, there are three things creating a new tide in consumer expectations for Wi-Fi:
- Invisible Wi-Fi means that you are too busy to chase around passwords or sit through stupid ads. Invisible means your Wi-Fi just connects. You don’t need to fiddle with an app or hammer away on your keyboard; you just connect to Wi-Fi invisibly like 4G on your smartphone or tablet.
- Everywhere is self-evident: in airports, or trains, the local café, a hotel or in the air. You can depend on a ubiquitous, secure connection, all hassle-free.
- Unlimited connectivity without the meter running. Unlimited data. Unlimited devices: laptop, smartphone, or tablet. No counting bits and bytes. And virtually unlimited access to hot spots – not just those in the carrier-affiliated chain stores.
These consumer demands are inevitably leaking into the business world, as well. Businesses today run on apps. To enable a new age of productivity in a global world and keep up with new mobile-first generations of workers, businesses must make Wi-Fi for their customers, suppliers and partners as available and essential as electricity … without the meter.
Gary A. Griffiths is president and CEO at iPass Inc. Previously a member of iPass’ board of directors, he was also co-founder and CEO of Trapit, Inc., a leading provider of SaaS-based applications for sales and marketing automation. A 35-year veteran of the high-tech industry, Griffiths was president of products and operations at WebEx, co-founder and CEO at Everdream Corporation as well as CEO at HEAT.net.