Thursday, February 22, 2007

From an email address trap to social software

Since my company takes President's day off, I spent a couple of hours on Monday at 360 Primo. It's a good place to write: not only it is a very cool coffeeshop, it has flaky WiFi as a bonus. :-) Flaky WiFi, while annoying, is just what you need while writing. It keeps you from temptation of surfing the web. Fewer distractions.

But a mind, determined to find distraction, will find it. And so, unable to access the internet, I started to explore the only thing I could connect to: Less Networks site. Less Networks is the WiFi provider for 360 Primo and a number of other wireless hotspots around Austin (and elsewhere, apparently). For some reason, while every other page on the internet was loading very slowly, Less Networks site was speedy and responsive.

Lame excuses: why would you need an account to access a wireless network?

Less Networks WiFi differs from other WiFi spots in Austin in that you need to sign in to use their network. Meaning, you need to create an account, and for that you need to give out your email address. When I first came across one of their hotspots at (some other) Austin coffeeshop a couple of years ago, I thought, great! Yet another company found a novel excuse for harvesting email addresses! There was an article in the local newspaper about Less Networks, where they said this feature was for user convenience: it will allow Less Networks users to access all of Less Networks hotspots with the same username. I could not believe what a lame excuse it was: after all, everybody knows that you don't need an account to access a wireless network! Your computer can connect to any wireless network (that does not use encryption) without you having to give out any of your personal information! :-) Did this company think WiFi users were complete idiots?

Then a couple years later I read another article about Less Networks, where this misfeature was spun as a security feature. Supposedly, if users are required to log in, that will prevent them from doing evil things on the internet, because Less Networks will know who they are. I found this explanation to be insincere as well. Your account is tied to nothing but your email address, and that's not a solid piece of identity, given how easy it is to get a disposable email address.

But on Monday I explored their site further to see what all "benefits" I might get from my account at Less Networks, and I was surprised to discover that they have branched out into social software. (Or maybe they've been there all along, and I just didn't know it. :-)) It turns out you can see the profiles of other Less Networks users in the same coffeeshop (but only if you choose to make your own profile visible, so no one can see you against your will). And not only you can customize your profile with your picture, you can also indicate your relationship status. Available options are "seeking men", "seeking women", and "not looking".

A marriage of wireless networks and dating software

Seeing that, I thought: dammit, I had a similar idea in 2002!.. even as I realized I was probably one of thousands of people who had the same idea. :-) Marrying wireless network software with dating software sounds like a match made in heaven. :-) Indeed, many people who hang out in cofeeshops with their laptops for hours on end are single. And many of them may see a cute or interesting person in the coffeeshop, but rarely approach them, as that would feel rather awkward (try to chat up a stranger in a quiet place like a coffeeshop, and you'll feel as exposed as an actor on stage). Wouldn't it be better to silently send an instant message to that cute person, to gauge their interest? This idea had occurred to me back in 2002; I thought it would be cool if WiFi-enabled coffeeshops ran software that would enable people in the coffeeshop to connect. But of course, I'm one of the 99% of the population that dreams up all sorts of ideas but would never even think of putting them into practice (there's no market for something like that... who would ever want such a thing?.. people can barely do x on their computers, you can't expect them to do y... if there was money to be made of off something so simple, someone would have done it already). Not to mention that my personal circumstances back in 2002 were very inconducive to entrepreneurship. And wireless networks in Austin were still nascent -- you were lucky if you could get a good signal at a WiFi coffeeshop. Anything more was a pipe dream. And then soon my single days ended, so I lost interest in the subject. :-)

And now I see Less Networks is going somewhere with this idea. Though I don't think they provide a way for users to instant-message other users, which is a feature I would think as most useful for people trying to connect with others in the same coffeeshop. But I shall not bemoan their running away with "my" idea, because I'm pretty sure 10000 other people in the US had the same idea at the time, and no one lifted a finger to do something about it. As the saying goes, many hear the call but few are chosen. :-)

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