Effective July 1, you will be able to get free Wi-Fi access to go with that venti iced chai latte at more than 6,700 Starbucks coffee shops. Combined with the free Wi-Fi at 11,000 McDonald's restaurants, and free wireless networking at a wide variety of other shops and cafés across the country, access to 3G (or now 4G) networking is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
For Starbucks, the move to completely free Wi-Fi--without limitations or strings attached--is long overdue. I enjoy a Starbucks beverage now and then, but Starbucks has lost a significant amount of my business, and I assume millions of others, who want to be able to log in, check e-mail, surf the Web, or whatever else while getting caffeinated--but aren't willing to pay extra for that privilege.
McDonald's may have been the straw that broke Starbucks' back. The ubiquitous Golden Arches are more plentiful than Starbucks coffee shops, and McDonald's launched the McCafé premium coffee shop--providing similar high-end coffee drinks and Frappuccino knock-offs. The fact that McDonald's outnumbers Starbucks, typically sells its premium coffee drinks for less than Starbucks, had its coffee rated better than Starbucks by Consumer Reports, and offered free Wi-Fi to boot was all bad news for Starbucks.
What does this all mean for mobile business professionals who need to connect on the go? Well, between Starbucks and McDonald's it means that there are nearly 18,000 available locations where free wireless network access is available. It also means that in any metropolitan or suburban area you probably can't go two blocks without finding a free wireless network at one or both of these establishments.
When Apple launched the iPad I made the point that the average consumer has no reason to spend an additional $130 for the 3G-enabled version specifically because free Wi-Fi can be found virtually anywhere. However, I argued that mobile business professionals should still invest the additional money so that the 3G option is available when necessary.
That is still the case, more or less, however with Starbucks finally joining the free Wi-Fi revolution, the need for 3G (or the next generation 4G) wireless connectivity is disappearing. The recent changes to AT&T's wireless data plans upset many customers, but with free Wi-Fi on every corner most users won't really need to consume much data via the 3G network.
For now, though, I stand by the assertion that 3G/4G connectivity is still required for business use. While Starbucks and McDonald's are on every street corner in greater metropolitan areas, there are still vast swaths of land throughout the country that don't fit that description. It also doesn't help to have free Wi-Fi at Starbucks or McDonald's if you are at a client site with no wireless network and need urgent access to online information.
For those who don't travel beyond the limits of greater metropolitan civilization, though, 3G/4G wireless data just became significantly less important.