Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Web 2.0 takes a hit and nobody noticed

Boeing has announced the shutdown of their airborne Wi-fi service, Connexion. It represents a subtle blow to Web 2.0 and gives us all pause for thought.

Boeing launched a Wi-Fi service which Robert Scoble and others demonstrated in July 2005. The Connexion service was intended to provide wireless service to airline passengers. There have been a lot of suggestions as to why the service failed. An interesting analysis is done in Mike Urlocker’s Blog. Basically Boeing realized they could get a better return on investment by backing other projects with the money freed up by divesting of Connexion. This is a minor setback for Web 2.0 because of the dependence upon connectivity. Airline travel has just maintained its position as a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of business - for a little while longer at least.

Exclusivity fails

There are lessons to be learned here. A high priced Wi-Fi service has failed but that does not kill all options for airborne communications. The service was targeted at laptop carrying passengers. Yet the laptop is still a power challenged device with most laptops only able to sustain a charge long enough to watch a single DVD movie. Airlines have still not widely deployed power to passenger seats to allow travellers to keep their laptops charged throughout a flight. In this situation a $27 fee for the entire flight might be limited by the 3 hours or so of battery life on a typical laptop resulting in a cost per hour around $9. Expensive - like most things purchased on board. This places the service in the “Emergency Use only” category. It is certainly not something people are going to pay for just to IM friends or check their MySpace account.

Web 2.0 takes a hit

This strikes a small blow against Web 2.0. Applications in this space are built on the idea of always on connectivity. Air travel breaks that model. One subtle point to remember is that many business leaders spend significant amounts of their time on airlines. Are they going to underwrite solutions that don’t work for them? This situation got me thinking about 3 issues:
  1. File formats
  2. Synchronization
  3. Local applications

File formats

I think Google and others are heading in the right direction with the focus on open file formats. Much of our data is locked in proprietary file structures. While many of these formats have been reverse engineered to allow people like Google to search within more effectively, it is really in our interests as consumers to promote the adoption of open file formats. This will make it easier for us to move information between devices and applications.


We need to become a lot smarter with synchronization. Google and Microsoft’s rumored gDrive and LiveDrive may provide us with an online storage locker for our data but we will need to be able to easily synchronize data between these online information stores and our local devices, be it cell phone, laptop, desktop or home media hub. We need to be aiming for the nirvana where we don’t have to care about where our data is.

Local applications

Microsoft can rest easy in the knowledge that the Microsoft Office market is not going to evaporate overnight. If you have ever experienced a network failure, or have moved house and had to wait for a broadband connection to be installed, you realize the frustration of not being able to access networked applications. In these scenarios the fallback is to the trusty Office Suite. Online Web 2.0 applications are great tools but they magnify our dependence on a network infrastructure that may not be robust enough for the job, particularly in the consumer world.

What does the future hold?

I have discussed the potential of the cell phone in earlier articles (here). I see the cellphone playing a growing role in the evolution of Web 2.0, both as client and, just as importantly, as conduit. I am looking forward to two developments:
  1. Affordable wireless broadband
  2. Growing Smartphone capability
As wireless broadband becomes more widely available it will grow in popularity. This will help us get closer to the situation where we can take connectivity for granted. This will once again reduce the barriers to the broad adoption of Web hosted applications. It is this scenario that may explain why Google is so interested in municipal Wi-fi deployments. Reducing the barriers to access increase the ease of adoption of web applications. That is definitely in Google’s interests.

In the airline scenario Internet access will become more feasible if it can be opened up to a wider audience to achieve economies of scale. The smartphone has an important role to play here. Airline travellers, instead of depending on laptops with limited battery life will be able to use their smartphones for web browsing,email and other light duty tasks. If the wireless operators find a way to reliably deliver cell phone service in the air and the FAA allows cellphone use on planes then demand will be there. Subscribers will be able to use their cellphone directly, or use it as a wireless modem hooked up to their laptops for heavier duty work. This scenario is already proven on the ground.

What are your thoughts? Join the conversation and leave a comment.

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