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Sidewalk on the Sidewalk
Where, oh where have the kiosks gone?
Not so long ago you could walk into nearly any high traffic tourist area in any major metropolitan area, and see a four foot high terminal with a touch-screen monitor offering up information to the masses. While the idea was nice, more often than not the presentation was poor and the information less than helpful. Kiosks -- usually clumsy, often broken -- were too dumb and too slow to keep up with the rest of the computing world... One minute it had the "wow factor" going for it. The next minute it was gathering dust and suffering from CGA burn in.
But I wouldn't be surprised if we started seeing a resurgence in general- and targeted-use information kiosks. The technology , the content, and the business models are all there to bring useful, real-time information down to the street level.
Just as the days of the unconnected PC are clearly numbered, it's obvious that the days of the unconnected kiosk should soon be coming to an end. Kiosks operating on a thin-client model could be the first step to the "information at your fingertips" future that Chairman Bill harps on so frequently.
While previous generations of kiosks relied on clunky user interfaces and stale information, the next generation will rely on simply on a "chromeless" web browser and a reliable connection to the net. Both Netscape and Microsoft are building advanced kiosk features into the next generation of browsers. Add phone jack, or, better yet, a wireless connection via Ricochet, and you have an info dispenser that can simply be plugged into the wall. Assign a permanent IP address to each kiosk, and a simple ping can assure that the machine is up and running.
For all the talk of intelligent devices, the dream of ubiquitous computing isn't about ubiquitous computing at all...it's about ubiquitous content. And in the real world, ubiquity is about availability. Thus, the perfect place for a connected kiosk is anywhere where there's high foot traffic. Malls. Airports. City Hall. Hotel lobbies.
The human concierge will survive -- at the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton. Everywhere else? I wouldn't be so sure. A connected kiosk in a hotel lobby could provide access to restaurant reviews, up to the minute movie listings, show times, etc. The partnerships are easy to imagine: CitySearch and Marriott. Sidewalk and Hilton.
Speaking of Sidewalk, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Microsoft is fairly well-positioned to own the kiosk market, if it wanted to. They have the platform: WebTV could be the perfect low-end device to drive local kiosks; they would only need to have UI modified to support a touch screen interface, and you're only out a few hundred bucks if the thing grows legs. They have the content: Sidewalk would be the perfect information set to actually plunk down on the sidewalks of Seattle, New York or San Francisco. And they have the network: the existing MSN infrastructure would be the perfect way to keep the kiosks up and running -- especially if they ditch the consumer dialup side of MSN. And by dropping ten of them to the square mile, they build brand awareness for their non-core products.
The key question is whether kiosks add value for the "hosts" (the hotels and airports and malls that actually give up real estate for the R2D2 sized machines) and the end users. While co-branding is possible on the host side (imagine a border frame around content which says "Hilton Hotels invite you to stroll our Sidewalk"), the machine has to be well enough supported to be a no-brainer. There would be nothing worse than having fired your concierge, only to have to explain to irate customers what exactly what to do with a "404 File Not Found" error.
From the end-user perspective, I have a feeling this could prove to be the one no-brainer market for sites like CuisineNet or CitySearch or Sidewalk. I have a sneaking suspicion that locals don't use these sites...they rely on something a bit more mundane -- word of mouth -- for their urban tips and tricks. But the tourists, looking for that perfect place on Fisherman's Wharf...now that's another story. Despite the efforts of more than a handful of web kiosk companies, the key to kiosk resurgence will not be plain old web surfing. After all, you can do that at home. The key will be finding a specific information need in a specific place for a specific set of customers, and then filling that need with the right configuration of box and wires. Otherwise the kiosks will just gather dust the way their predecessors did.
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