Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Laptop Lane, the Hot Potato

Back in the waning years of the twentieth century, two people had a dream.

As the hard-traveling CEO of a consumer-products company, Bruce Merrell often found himself consigned to his own special circle of hell: the crowded concourses and lounges of U.S. airports. On one such trip he witnessed the ultimate frequent-flier indignity: a man in a three-piece suit had dropped down on all fours to grope for an electrical outlet to plug his laptop into. Merrell recalls exchanging glances with his business partner, Mark McNeely. "Whoa," they both thought. "Why don't we do this?"

"This" became Laptop Lane Ltd., the Seattle-based company that Merrell, McNeely, Grant Sharp, and J'Amy Owens cofounded in May 1996. Laptop Lane rents office space equipped with all the latest techno bells and whistles to business travelers between flights. After its debut, at the Cincinnati airport last May, the company plunged into Seattle a month later. Since then another 6 branches have opened for business, at Chicago's O'Hare and in Atlanta and Denver, and there are plans to open 10 more sites by year's end, at New York's LaGuardia and Los Angeles's LAX and in Philadelphia and Phoenix.

The new company got some press in the Pacific Northwest, and eventually...someone else had a dream.

Larry Brilliant, one hand wrapped around a cold can of Coke on his desk at SoftNet Systems, was describing a way of life that most people might regard as road torture.

"These are people traveling on business all the time, working like maniacs, an average of 2.4 separate visits each week to an airport, where they spend an average of two hours each trip," he said.

I see this as cause to notify Amnesty International, but Brilliant, a physician who got into the computer world as an early investor in Apple Computer, sees it as his major market. These potential customers, he said, are the creme de la creme among the estimated 30 million business travelers around the world who belong to a group that fits his description of "They're price-insensitive, time-sensitive, and on the road constantly." Brilliant is the chairman and chief executive of SoftNet....

Back in February [2000], on a layover at the Tampa International Airport in Florida, I had spent a productive hour working at a storefront business center called Laptop Lane, which rents private office cubicles with desks, phones and computers offering high-speed Internet service.

This struck me as a spectacular innovation, being able to rent a private office -- I paid $2 for the first 5 minutes and 38 cents for each additional minute -- in a place as invincibly dismal as an airport. The parent company, Laptop Lane, had said it would open locations in 80 airports worldwide within two years. But by the time I got home and called Laptop Lane, the company had been acquired by Brilliant's SoftNet for $45 million. Brilliant, and backers like Nokia, it turned out, had an even more ambitious idea: Use Laptop Lane's hard-won airport real estate as a base for SoftNet's plan to sell wireless and fixed-line high-speed Internet connections to business travelers. Until Laptop Lane entered the picture, SoftNet had been considering that hotels would be the main anchor for its local-network Internet services.

Fast-forward a year, and someone else had a dream:

Wayport, a provider Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless and wired high-speed Internet access throughout airports and hotels, is expanding its airport footprint and lineup of airport business services for the traveler with the purchase of nine strategic Laptop Lane locations.

The high-profile Laptop Lane business centers, to be branded under the Wayport name, provide travelers with onsite business services....

I first heard of Laptop Lane after Wayport acquired the name. I'm on Wayport's mailing list, and they frequently e-mail me about Laptop Lane stuff, and McDonald's internet access stuff, and their hotel 'net access business.

However, earlier this week I got an e-mail from another company. It turns out that Wayport has exited the Laptop Lane business, and someone else now has the dream.

LAPTOP LANE has been acquired by the US-based Regus Group, the world's
largest provider of outsourced workplaces, which sees it as a new expansion, an "office on the go" solution for business travellers. Laptop Lane airport business centres offer fully equipped, private offices with PC workstations, internet access, phones with long distance and conference-call capabilities, printing, copying, faxing, and package shipping. Each Laptop Lane location also has a retail outlet that sells a variety of business and travel-related accessories. Laptop Lane operates 14 business centres and retail outlets at eight airport locations across the United States, including Atlanta, Chicago O'Hare, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, Oakland, and Philadelphia.

Apparently the dream isn't as hot as people suspected. In 1998, Laptop Lane was in five airports, with plans to expand into another four. By 2006, Laptop Lane was only in eight airports.

We'll see how long Regus Group holds on to the dream. It turns out that the dream may be drowned out by other dreams, as KC Free Wireless Hotposts notes:

SLC, strangely, is unwired by Sprint, who abandoned their network at KCI to the city, which now runs it as a free offering. I can't help but wonder if they're faring any better out there than they did here, given that I didn't see anyone out there using them. The newly resurrected Ma Bell-you just can't keep a bad woman down, can you?-has Denver lit up, and I also saw a SSID there for an unencrypted network labled "Qwest Business Center" or something like that. Neither had any more customers in evidence than Sprint had back in Salt Lake. I did happen to see someone with a laptop in Denver, but he was using a Verizon cellular card.

The Verizon cellular card is the key (some of my co-workers use it). Sure it's expensive, but it's not a dollar a minute. All of the formerly price-insensitive people have now been placed on cost-cutting committees.

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