ANALYSIS: Wi-fi looks to create lasting connection with the public

Creating initial buzz for wi-fi was easy. The real PR challenge lies in avoiding over-hype while ensuring the new technology's staying power with consumers.

Creating initial buzz for wi-fi was easy. The real PR challenge lies in avoiding over-hype while ensuring the new technology's staying power with consumers.

Want wi-fi with that? That could be the question you're asked the next time you order a Big Mac at McDonald's, the latest company to jump on the wi-fi bandwagon. Just the very fact that McDonald's has started giving away an hour of free internet access at some of its restaurants with the purchase of an Extra Value Meal indicates that wi-fi - technology that lets users wirelessly access the internet or a company's internal servers - has reached the masses. T-Mobile currently has 2,300 hot spots (areas where wi-fi is available to the public) with partners such as Starbucks, and will do the same with Kinko's. Intel launched a $300 million marketing campaign in March to promote its new wireless technology, Centrino. BusinessWeek devoted its April 21 cover story to wi-fi. And companies including Cisco Systems, Palm, and Motorola are among the numerous hardware developers envisioning wi-fi for future products. "Not since the birth of the web has a new technology offered so much possibility," declare Wired's editors in a special May issue appropriately called Unwired. But lest the hi-tech industry suffer from short-term memory, we all know what happened to all those companies hyping the possibility of the web. The web is still with us, although more than a few companies got burned on the way down to where we are today. Few people doubt wi-fi is a legitimate and exciting technology. But the recent flurry of activity and attention begs the question whether wi-fi is really the next big thing for the tech industry, or just a bunch of hype setting up expectations to unrealistic levels where people are going to get stung again. PR drives the buzz "Frankly, it's too early to say for sure," says Paul Travis, senior news editor at InformationWeek. "It's the nature of the technology industry to hype any new cool thing that comes along in hope that it catches on. The PR industry is paid to hype this stuff. It's their job. No one is successful in PR by being cautious or reserved. But what PR can do is get folks to try something. And once they do, then people will decide whether it's something they want and need." Michael Coe, SVP and co-chair of Fleishman-Hillard's hi-tech practice, also sees comparisons between wi-fi and the web, as both gained prominence through grassroots support. As that grassroots and early-adopter support moves into the mainstream, so does the attention and media coverage. "PR is playing a big role," admits Coe. The agency recently published a survey of technology executives who deemed wi-fi the next big thing. "You have a technology that is being talked about, but there still isn't much going on in terms of deployment or use. So PR is helping fuel the momentum about the potential of wi-fi." But Rhonda Shantz, partner and GM of Porter Novelli's San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices, feels the hype is getting to be a little too much. "The public is absolutely ready for wireless," argues Shantz. "If you think about the kind of computing they're talking about, it's being hyped as the freedom to compute anywhere. But it's not. Wi-fi is totally and completely appropriate as a campus technology, where a business or organization has thousands of people on-site. The industry will face two problems if they push it as something anyone can use anywhere - configuration and capacity. I don't think there have been any reports about the reality of wi-fi, about how it will be used, and who will use it. "That's not to say wi-fi isn't legitimate," adds Shantz. "It is. It's real, and it has its place. As any technology emerges, it will gain momentum because of its unconventional nature, as wi-fi has. But there are big marketing machines that are jumping onto the bandwagon without providing much clarity." The excitement and promise is real, argues Larry Cohen, Microsoft's director of corporate marketing. Starbucks' thousands of hot spots are more than an experiment, and every airport he flies into offers wi-fi connections. "There's no doubt that it's real," says Cohen. "People are doing more than experimenting. Of course it's still early, and while it's a bright spot in technology, it's not the only bright spot. But I don't believe this is over-hyped. We're going to see more and more proliferation in the home and the office." Widespread attention Just as much as PR is driving the attention, so are the analysts, wireless pundits, and "tech geeks," says Andrea Linskey, executive director of corporate communications at Verizon Wireless. Wi-fi is getting the attention not just from one corner, but from all sides. "We understand there are a large number of customers who travel who want to be able to connect to the internet and get their e-mail in a variety of environments," says Linskey. "There is always a danger with emerging technologies of hyping them too much. But at the end of the day, it's about executing a business plan and developing products that meet the demands of customers." It might be easy to misconstrue the coverage as hype because the media wants and needs something sexy to write about, explains Victoria Holl, director of marketing communications at Vocera, which makes devices allowing people to talk to each other over wi-fi networks. "But hype also generates interest, and this is something that's definitely happening." This hype is not a good thing, however, argues Forrester Research analyst Stan Schatt. "If you look at the wireless LAN market in Q4, it was flat. There are distorted numbers in the press. When someone says 80% of companies are using wi-fi, it means they are experimenting with it, not using it widely. Roaming, security, and capacity are still huge issues that need to be dealt with, especially security. This is still in its infancy, and the numbers don't justify the buzz. What's driving this isn't the IT managers, it's the CEO who visited another CEO's office and saw that they had [wi-fi], so now that CEO wants it." Which is not to say wi-fi isn't being used. UPS has used wireless technologies for several years, explains Donna Barrett, technology PR manager at UPS. Using such technology saves the company time and money when it comes to tracking the exact location of customers' packages. "It's a great solution, and wi-fi has been pretty hot for the past six months," Barrett says. "What you're seeing is the national media catching the wave. The tech media has been writing about this for a while. The truth is somewhere in between the hype and the hope this is the next big thing." Dave DeVries, senior PR manager at Sprint PCS, says the amount of coverage isn't the problem; it's the content, and whether it's reaching the right audiences. "It's kick-ass cool once it's running, but I'm not sure who will adopt this beyond the business travelers or tech-savvy young people," he says. There is still quite a bit of education that needs to be done in order for wi-fi to truly reach its potential. Information needs to be more forthcoming about how the technology works and how fast connections actually are to prevent the inevitable letdown if expectations are set too high. But those expectations are being set because in an industry that has been down for the past few years, everyone needs something to hope for. "Everyone likes hope and this gives them that," says Caryn Marooney, OutCast Communications cofounder. "We haven't had a technology in a while that most people are going to experience personally. This is important, and will be one of the next big things. And of the 400 companies chasing this, there will be three that matter. Wireless is going to be the standard of how people work. It will be huge. But big and important to the industry, and big and important to customers are two different things."

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