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Finally: I've been asking the question for several years: when will media servers on planes be used to provide in-flight entertainment over Wi-Fi? The answer is now. Aircell told me years ago that they had provisioned the ability to put media servers on planes, and were waiting for pieces to fall into place. Its public trial with American Airlines on a couple of 767-200s will start this summer.
It's a logical connection that when you have people on a local, high-speed wireless network that you could deliver content to them for free and for a fee. Given that the majority (sometimes entirety) of people on a flight have some kind of device with a screen, why build in miles of wire and clunky seatback entertainment systems?
One of the best, Virgin American's Red, is still slow, hard to navigate, and of poor quality relative to even the worst tablet or netbook. Alaska Airlines never installed such systems for reasons of cost, and rents its digEplayer instead—a portable tablet preloaded and precharged.
An airline that moves away from seatback systems and into passenger-provided hardware could also stock tablets for rental, now that there will be ready availability of a variety of sizes and capabilities that handle video playback well, and which cost relatively little compared to custom systems like the digEplayer.
This could also eliminate live satellite feeds by providing time-delayed playback on demand. Imagine that when a plane comes to a halt and the doors are opened that a system at each gate starts a high-speed 802.11n transfer of several hours of news and other recent sports, talk shows, and network programs. There's something nice about "live," but there's also the reality of operational cost and antenna drag.
Aircell and American haven't announced which programs and movies will be available nor the cost or other particulars.
Starbucks entertainment senior VP "left" the company today; its CTO subsumes the entertainment function: If you were wondering if Starbucks might provide even clearer signals about its future plans regarding in-store entertainment and its deal with AT&T to take over providing Wi-Fi services and back-end operations, today's brief announcement speaks volumes. Chris Bruzzo, the company's chief technology office, will add the entertainment group's functions to his current purview. This doesn't surprise me after speaking with Bruzzo two months when the AT&T deal was announced. (A few details from that talk.)
When I talked to Bruzzo, he was clearly focused on how to improve the culture of the stores, with technology being one tool. He talked about connectivity being "a core part of the Starbucks experience" (that's Experience with a [tm]), and that he wanted Starbucks customers to be able to "tell stories" about coffee, music, and other things. That implies a kind of online medium for discussion and interaction that doesn't yet exist, but that is more likely to happen with Bruzzo's expanded role.
Bruzzo had already tipped me to the fact that Starbucks has caching media servers in its stores; that's how the Starbucks iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store combination technology works with iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPod touch in the several markets in which that's offered. (Those plans never advanced much after the initial launch, by the way: Seattle, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area got service, but Chicago and Los Angeles are still listed as "coming soon," and other metropolitan areas are now "by the end of 2008," which would tie in neatly with Starbucks' other plans.)
With caching servers, content is pushed to the edge. Retrieving a 2 GB movie from iTunes thus becomes a matter of a few minutes to a laptop (or even faster if 802.11n networks are being deployed by AT&T), rather than 30 to 120 minutes over a typical home broadband connection. Stop in to Starbucks and fill up--with media. Neat, huh?
Back in February, Bruzzo described how the company has a unique relationship with its customers, who are already bringing their digital lifestyle into the stores, allowing hyper-local conversations to take place. "Starbucks is uniquely positioned to provide that kind of very local opportunity. It's what we do. The beginning of that is what we do today when we curate music, and books." The new AT&T relationship, he said, "gives us a landscape to continue to experiemnt with those kinds of things even at a local level."
As for the kinds of devices used, "We shouldn't be limited in our thoughts about connected devices to just communications devices; they should be PSPs [PlayStation Portables] and cameras." I expect that we will see a lot of change, much of workshopped in Seattle-area stores, in the digital side of Starbucks this year.
I will also repeat my expectation that the launch of a 3G iPhone will involve a Starbucks tie-in, and that the date for the first Starbucks AT&T markets to go live with AT&T in charge will coincide with the release of the 3G iPhone. The timing is too close to be coincidental. (Rumors today are that the 3G iPhone will be announced at the June 9 developers conference that Apple runs. I'll be at that event's keynote.)
Bruzzo has been with the company for not much over a year, coming off a few years as head of communications (talking, not technology) at Amazon. In January 2008, he was boosted to chief technology and chief information officer, as well as being appointed a vice president. That's a pretty fast rise; he must have, you know, a few good ideas. He's behind My Starbucks Idea, the site the company is using to let its customers give it free, valuable advice. One of the fascinating, Cluetrained elements of that site is the transparency: ideas that are submitted can be viewed by other visitors to the site, and voted upon. Suggestion boxes are usually locked tight, whether in the real world or on the Net. Some posts have thousands of votes and hundreds of comments.
Today's announcement also included a note that Starbucks is selling its Hear Music division to its partner in the venture, Concord Music Group. Hear signed Paul McCartney among other musicians; Starbucks will keep working with Concord, so this might not be quite as big a change in direction as a change in its internal focus. This is yet another move of many by company head Howard Schultz, who took charge of the firm again, and started getting rid of top executives, reorganizing divisions, and making announcements about massive changes in the stores, notably replacing its barista-hiding super-automated coffeemakers with shorter, more controllable systems, and tearing out the stinking breakfast sandwich ovens.
Yesterday was pretty overwhelming, trying to sort out all the facts, and the impact: The bits and pieces of this industry-changing deal will keep shaking out until and past the launch. I have some detritus from yesterday to catch up on, as well as some new analysis of what this means. (You can also read my coverage in The Seattle Times, where I discuss this as more of a general business story.)
The Starbucks Card and free access: The press release from Starbucks and three conversations I had with them yesterday finally made clear what the free 2-hours access requires. You need a Starbucks Card, which is their stored-value card, not a credit card. (Their Starbucks Duetto credit card will, however, also qualify.) Starbucks Cards can be purchased at a store with a minimum fill of $5.00 that you can use to buy stuff at the store. Once you have the card, free Wi-Fi service is activated by a single purchase of any amount on the card every 30 days. No purchase is needed each time you use the free Wi-Fi nor for the 30 days following a purchase! (A reader asked whether you also had to be an AT&T subscriber. No.)
AT&T's network scope and pricing: AT&T isn't very clear about what they include in various free and fee roaming packages. After consulting their Wi-Fi site and talking to an AT&T spokesperson yesterday, I think I have the story. DSL, fiber, and business remote-access customers (the 12m we've been discussing) get the Basic package included at no cost, which isn't 17,000 (with Starbucks included) but isn't far off. It's McDonald's (8,500) plus Starbucks (7,000) plus Barnes & Noble (several hundred) and a few other chains/venues and airports that AT&T operates itself. Most U.S. hotels and airports operated by other providers require a Premier subscription, which also adds 53,000 international locations. For those who get Basic for free, the Premier subscription is $10.00 per month; all others, Premier is the only option for a subscription, and it's $20 per month. Pricing is explained, but not very clearly, on their Wi-Fi page; you have to look at that page and then at the location finder to sort this out.
AT&T Wireless customers: There's no deal here for anyone but DSL, fiber, and remote-access business customers. Those will cell plans don't (yet) get anything special. That includes...
...The iPhone: No iPhone update yesterday, but everyone I interviewed was winking slyly.
Media in the stores, and Apple: Starbucks chief technical officer as much as told me that Starbucks has Apple media servers in their stores that feed out songs and previews based on what's programmed in the stores. The move from there to caching digital movie rentals and popular downloads is very, very small. I've written a long piece explaining this for Mac journal TidBITS: Starbucks Deal Brewed with AT&T Has Hints of Apple. You're going to walk into Starbucks, log onto free or cheap Wi-Fi, and download a movie for rental in a few minutes from the local network.
3G iPhone: Oh, yeah, I predict Starbucks will be part of the launch plan for the 3G iPhone, which I would now wager will appear in second quarter because that's when AT&T will have some markets up and running with Wi-Fi in the coffeeshops.
Location: Starbucks CTO Chris Bruzzo also emphasized community, location, and digital experience. He had few specifics, but the idea of bringing in portable devices, like cameras and games, and spending time interacting online in some fashion, yet to be described, with a community that's highly local to the store seemed the theme. He also mentioned location-based services in passing, since each store obviously has a fixed location; T-Mobile was providing some location-based information before this, but more extensive offerings sounds planned. Bruzzo was hip about broadcasting Web services that devices on the network would pick up, instead of talking about a Web browser to Web server equation, which is more laptop oriented.
Many devices, one account: You'll be able to use the same account or Starbucks Card code to bring multiple devices online at the same time, within reason. Bruzzo at Starbucks said it would be handled in a reasonable fashion; an iPhone and laptop logged in at the same time wouldn't cause the system to complain. They'll track MAC addresses--that's adapter unique IDs--to avoid real abuse.
Wi-Fi as glue between home and true mobility: AT&T also told me yesterday that the abundance of "free" in this deal had to do with cementing a customer's connection seamlessly along whatever they do. Joe Izbrand, a spokesperson, said, "The benefit is in our ability to continue to big the largest Wi-Fi connect, to deliver converged connectivity across the board, it's part of what we're trying to do to keep people connected no matter what they're doing, on the home, on the road, whatever. In the competitive marketplace, that's a real differentiator."
T-Mobile and Starbucks: As noted yesterday, T-Mobile data subscribers will have fee-free roaming access onto Starbucks when the transition to AT&T happens in each store, for now and "for years to come" according to a revised statement released late in the afternoon yesterday by T-Mobile. The statement also clarifies that T-Mobile HotSpot@Home customers who use the converged cell/Wi-Fi handsets for calling over either kind of network will also be included in this. The deal lasts "at least the next five years." I don't have details on this, but I have been told that the transfer of provider was abrupt, and I suspect that Starbucks made this a condition of the AT&T deal to avoid any of its customers being upset by a service transition. While numbers of monthly subscribers have never been released, it's likely in the 100,000 to 125,000 range. I can't see many fewer, and it's hard to see decisions T-Mobile made if the number was much larger.
Wayport's catbird seat: The first person I called when I heard about the deal was Dan Lowden at Wayport, a long-time executive who has been through all the changes in the market. Wayport is AT&T's managed service partner, and has the direct contract with McDonald's, to which Wayport resells access to AT&T; they're picking up 7,000 more locations to manage through this deal. "I think this is some of the biggest news in the industry ever," Lowden said, and I am loathe to disagree; the only other news that might qualify as "bigger" were failures, such as the shutdown of Cometa, which ultimately has made little difference in the market's evolution. In fact, the original Starbucks deal with MobileStar in 2001 was one of the factors that launched hotspot deployment at a faster pace. I asked Lowden about the role of mobile devices in their networks. "We work with a lot of these device manufacturers as they're coming to market" to ensure a good connection experience, Lowden said.
Denver airport offers downloadable movies over local network: FreeFi, which is handling the advertising-supported free service in the airport, which jumped from 600 connections a day when it was for-fee to 4,000 to 5,000 at no cost. FreeFi has a deal with Walt Disney Studios to offer digital movie rentals over the local network. I have been writing for years about the power of the edge network, where instead of providing an Internet feed, media resides locally and can be moved at many times the potential Internet rate. This is the first substantial deployment in any form that I'm aware of.
You can move gigabits for free over a local network, and even at 802.11g speeds, a movie could download in perhaps 7 to 12 minutes (1 to 2 GB), especially in a well-designed network with a strong Ethernet backbone; FreeFi said a two-hour film should take 8 minutes to download on an uncongested network with a modern laptop. Move to 802.11n, and we're talking Stars Wars: Episode IV in perhaps 2 minutes. (I've been expecting Apple to offer this sort of service for a while: download locally, with a requirement to authorize the film over the Net. Their new rental model requires authorization, so we might see something from them in the future.)
FreeFi told me by phone this afternoon that films will have a 48-hour rental period from download, and cost $5 to $8. The longer-than-24-hour window is a welcome relief especially for those traveling, but there's apparently a premium: most online movie rental services charge $3 to $6, and offer a 24-hour window within 30 days after download. For travelers, this will be fine: You'll download the film out of a need for something to do on the plane or during layovers or delays, or to have something to watch on arrival at a hotel.
The FreeFi representative said the intent was to expand offerings beyond the roughly 60 that are now available. The focus will be on airports, where there are plenty of the right kind of audience passing through. The downloads require Windows Media Player and use Microsoft's digital rights management, FreeFi told me; sorry, new MacBook Air owners.
The BBC has partnered with The Cloud to make its online services available free at the network's 7,500 hotspots: BBC offers a variety of programming, including TV program (programme) downloads, through its Web site. A special Windows-only player will be supplemented with Mac OS X and Linux versions later this year, and Flash streaming will be offered, too. Downloaded programs can currently be kept on a computer for up to 30 days. At The Cloud locations, streaming and downloading will be available at no cost, but will require a laptop. They'll expand to portable devices like the Nokia N95 multimedia smartphone in the future. The BBC says they have 250,000 regular users of the iPlayer software.
At the CES show in January, Ruckus Wireless will demonstrate its streaming media, voice, and data wireless solution with 802.11n incorporated: The company has often trash-talked claims that 802.11n's increased bandwidth produces a natural solution for moving media and integrating many kinds of communication over the same wireless network. They have a point.
While the typical 802.11n network, in the version expected to be certified in spring, will offer 150 Mbps to 300 Mbps of raw speed, and more expensive, later versions will carry 600 Mbps of raw data, these speeds are highly dependent on the amount of available signal reflection, the distance between adjacent receiving clients, and the number of other Wi-Fi networks (new and old) nearby. To achieve the highest rates of speed, each spatial stream has to be fully employed using double-wide, 40 MHz channels. That will be possible intermittently even on the best networks.
Ruckus says that at January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), they will show a set of devices that incorporates both 802.11n for speed and their proprietary technology that gets good reviews in its 802.11g version for keeping stutter-free video, drop-free voice, and consistent data pumping across a network. They even take shots at 802.11n in this press release, noting that "despite the periodic high bandwidth bursts, delay- or loss-sensitive applications such as streaming video or voice have remained elusive on "Pre-N" implementations."
As with all these systems, the proof will be in deployed home networks, which will likely come through the kind of partnerships the company already has in place with independent telephone companies and other operators that are deploying IPTV and converged services. But with claims of supporting HDTV streams, Ruckus might have a direct-to-consumer offering as well; it just depends how hard it is to uncouple digital media from digital rights management.
Ruckus's 802.11n system will use Atheros chips with a three-by-three array, which the chipmaker claims will offer 300 Mbps physical data rate and 150 to 180 Mbps of real-world throughput. It uses two data streams and three sets of receive and transmit antennas.
Île Sans Fil (Wireless Island) will disseminate audio and video through its community-based free Wi-Fi hotspots in Montréal: Using content cached on the local networks, visitors to any of the 11 initial hotspots equipped with HAL (Hub des Artistes Locaux or Local Artist's Hub) can use iTunes and other music players to listen to music or watch videos. The project is supported by local media and culture organizations, including CHOQ.fm and CUTV.
HAL isn't just a local project. Rather, it's the local outgrowth of the open-source, commodity-hardware-based modification of the Firefly Media Server coupled with network software to allow network advertising (in the technical sense), discovery (in both the technical and artistic sense), and sharing (in all senses).
I am not alone in noting that the power of a Wi-Fi network can be in the "local" part of the WLAN (wireless local area network). While city-wide Wi-Fi networks might guarantee 512 Kbps or 1 Mbps of access, a WLAN in a hotspot could deliver 20 to 30 Mbps of net throughput.