Despondent geeks and over-taxed laptops litter venues all over Austin, Texas, where Wifi connections at SXSW have been crippled by the crowds. But next year's gadgets might not be so defenseless.
In the coming months, consumers will begin to see a new generation of cheap, portable gadgets capable of "protecting their own connectivity," says Richard Schwartz, president and CEO of a year-old company called Macheen. Schwartz's venture-backed startup makes white-label software that computer-makers use to create Kindle-like connectivity out of the box. Simple, yes. But the solution also has some weird implications for the web.
"Amazon's Kindle has really been an eye-opener," says Schwartz, whose Austin-based company works with major manufacturers to build devices that are "hot out of the box," or ready to connect to the Web as soon as they're powered on. Macheen's first partner, Dell, announced several weeks ago that the pair of companies would begin selling full-sized Vostro laptops in the German market pre-loaded with 3G connections. Assuming all goes well in Deutschland, Dell's always-connected machines will make it stateside within a few months.
This may not seem like news to early adopters who own a netbooks, many of which have bundled wireless from AT&T or Verizon. But Schwartz says that Macheen and its partners are experimenting with a la carte models that could slice and dice services like Netflix, Skype, Xbox Live or Google Maps, giving consumers access to certain services out of the box while up-selling them to others.
A tablet might come pre-loaded with an always-on Skype connection for receiving calls, but might ask consumers to fill a prepaid account to get on the wider web.
"You could build a device that does local searches out of the box but offer other services on a pay-per-use basis," says Schwartz. For companies like Twitter, who have begun to see themselves as part of modern-day infrastructure, there might be no sweeter notion than an always-on timeline preloaded on tablets or PCs.
While pre-loaded Web services might take the headaches out of wireless connectivity, it also has the potential to compartmentalize the Web in ways that are widely feared by net neutrality activists. A free, always-on Facebook connection, for example, could devastate competing social networks and consolidate web traffic into a few top services.
But Schwartz says there are tremendous upsides for consumers, who will be able to tailor the costs of their Web access to their actual use, instead of paying for expensive unlimited data plans. "The real beauty is that you can have a different suite of services or pricing rules for each device, each geography, and each brand," he says. A low-end manufacturer might offer dirt cheap laptops with free everything, while a more elite brand might decide to pre-load access to certain business services like Salesforce.com while leaving out access to non-work sites.
When Google's Chrome OS-based notebook trickled out of Mountain View late last year, murmurs of a future of "ad-supported" PCs began looking less fatuous than ever before. A notebook with white-label wireless service from a company like Macheen, which contracts its connectivity from the biggest national wireless carriers, could allow college students to toggle ad-supported connectivity on or off, depending on how broke they are that month.
Since wireless carriers prefer to court more profitable post-paid customers, Schwartz says they've given Macheen flexibility to create cocktails of always-on connections that can span carriers and continents, which may make roaming horrors history.