First, let's rewind to around 1994. At the time I was a beat reporter at InformationWeek. One of my editors, John Soat, was keeping close tabs on the software market -- tracking how the world had been shifting from mainframe-centric software to Unix to client-server systems running Windows. As PC networks and the Internet proliferated so too did software piracy. At the same time software companies started giving away more and more software -- freemium offers -- in hopes of hooking partners and customers on their pay-for programs. By the late 1990s, freeware and open source options like Linux and Apache were gaining critical mass.
The bottom line: As a whole software certainly isn't free... but freemium offers are everywhere. Today, cloud computing will further drive down "software" prices -- especially as Microsoft ramps up Office 365 to compete with Google Apps.
Now, WiFi Wants to Be FreeNow let's shift our attention to broadband and mobility. Rewind about five years. Many US cities were building out municipal broadband and city WiFi networks. The goal was to eliminate the digital divide, delivering broadband to locations that big ISPs and service providers had either ignored or overlooked.
Here's the twist: Many municipal WiFi deployments stumbled because big consumer WiFi clouds were too difficult and too expensive for cities to deploy and maintain. Some municipal WiFi projects succeeded -- including the a public safety/emergency responder WiFi network in Minneapolis. But the bigger success has involved free WiFi popping up in retail locations across the US.
Right now I'm seated at the JetBlue terminal at JFK airport in New York City. Hello, free WiFi. Yesterday I made my daily stop to Starbucks. Hello free WiFi. And I find myself visiting McDonalds more often -- for the free WiFi and maybe even a coffee.
Free WiFi seems to be everywhere -- if you look hard enough. At first glance free means there's less opportunity for VARs and MSPs. But I beg to differ. Independent retail stores, restaurants and public gathering places will have no choice but to offer free WiFi in order to compete with Starbucks, McDonalds and other free broadband providers. Somebody is going to need to deploy and manage all of those WiFi networks. That's where MSPs enter the picture.
The story doesn't end there. In recent days we've heard numerous reports about MSP software companies introducing VoIP management and monitoring systems. (The latest example involves a partnership between N-able and Mitel.) As voice, IP and WiFi converge new opportunities for security, monitoring, unified communications and collaboration will open up.
When it comes to technology, the word "free" can intimidate VARs and MSPs. But in the case of broadband, I suspect free ubiquitous WiFi will create more MSP opportunities than it destroys.
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