— I want to complain.
— You want to complain? Look at these shoes! I've only had them three weeks, and the heels are worn right through.
— Monty Python's Flying Circus, "The Argument Clinic"
The thought occurred to me the other day that considering it's an online publication, I've seen remarkably few items in Patch about internet and related technology. So…
A couple of months ago I signed up with the mini-gym up at . One day I decided to bring in my iPod Touch to help occupy my mind while I was working on my body. Now, it isn't a smart phone; it's Wi-Fi only for internet. But when I looked for Fit-Lite's Wi-Fi network — I mean, they're a gym, don't all gyms have Wi-Fi? — I couldn't find it. Turns out they don't provide one. Fortunately for me, one of their neighbors had an open network I could join (I couldn't tell whose, it had the default network name).
But I wasn't only disappointed that Fit-Lite didn't offer Wi-Fi, I was a little surprised that South Shore itself didn't have an open Wi-Fi network. Some malls do provide one — not all to be sure, but a few (e.g., Bayfair). They're relatively inexpensive and simple to set up. I would expect that these days, it would be a customer amenity like parking or air conditioning.
I think having the mobile internet so dependent on the cell network has been a mistake, although it's easy to understand why it evolved the way it did. (Note that we put cameras in our phones, not phones in our cameras.) I'm not enough of an engineer to say for sure, but I have the suspicion that the cellular telephone network is, um, suboptimal for internet communication (e.g., bandwidth is very narrow, compared with Wi-Fi — potentially, anyway). I am sure that when the modern cell-phone network was being developed towards the end of the last century, very few people were thinking about mobile internet. Mobile internet has been grafted onto the cell-phone network like Bruce Campbell's chainsaw-arm in the "Evil Dead" movies.
Indeed, the wireless carriers have been so overwhelmed by mobile internet they've had to invent all sorts of bizarre pricing plans and bandwidth restrictions, essentially strangling their own best revenue source. Thus, perhaps belatedly, the major players have been shifting their emphases to Wi-Fi. But free, open Wi-Fi remains the exception rather than the rule by quite some, making it considerably less convenient to use than the cell network.
A couple of definitions here: A "free" network is one that does not require a subscription, directly or indirectly; this does not preclude some manual "login" procedure, like the entering of a "Wi-Fi code", or an email address, or checking an "I agree" box. An "open" network is one that does not require such a login procedure. (A network can be "free" but not "open"; the converse, a bit trickier.) Examples of the former are Starbucks or the Library; of the latter, City Hall and Apple Stores.
The movement for community-provided Wi-Fi seemed to wither on the vine when nobody could figure out how to make money off it. Thus it's left to the individual coffee shop, or bar, or retailer to decide individually whether to offer Wi-Fi and under what restrictions. Of course, there's no consistency.
I love Peet's. Really. I've been a fan ever since moving to the area, and have held Peet's stock on occasion. As Tom Peters once said on the Charlie Rose show, Peet's taught Starbucks how to do coffee. (If you're a coffee fan, you want to know the role Alfred Peet played in moving America from Folger's and percolators to Starbucks and home grinders.) But they have the second lamest Wi-Fi I've run across. It takes forever for their login window to appear, the connection is slow, and they limit you to an hour. The signal is so weak that more often then not, sitting on the bench outside Peet's I get a better signal from Starbucks. Sometimes even when inside. (This is not limited to the Alameda store, I've discovered.)
The concern, of course, is that some hacker will use your network to commit some nefarious deed, and not only is it troubling that the nefarious deed was committed, but the use of your network might, potentially, make you liable for any damage resulting from the commission of said nefarious deed. And this was a real concern — ten years ago. Trust me on this one, network security is much more sophisticated than it was then — as are the hackers, who are, consequently, no longer interested in your bush-league, penny-ante network, hardly worth the bother of breaking into.
I found this CNET piece encouraging (and the inspiration for this post). The apparent improved security of the new standards might encourage more small networks to open up, although the article focused mainly on networks owned and operated by an established cell-phone carrier. It didn't seem to discuss otherwise-owned networks, like Peet's or the Library. So I guess we'll still have to wait awhile for our pocket videophones.