Kiosk Newsbit

By Chris Stamper
S E A T T L E,   June 24 — In 1995, Bruce Merril was commuting between coasts every week and always had the same problem: He couldn’t find a good place in the airport to plug in his laptop.
And he knew he wasn’t alone when he saw other businesspeople in $600 suits crawling on their hands and knees looking for electrical sockets, even unplugging pop machines.
     Internet terminals started popping up next to pay phones, but they were cramped. Expensive first-class lounges either didn’t have data connections or were too crowded. So he came up with a better idea.

More Work, Less Commotion
Merril founded Laptop Lane, a chain of stores that rent temporary office cubicles in airports across America. The first opened with 12 cubicles in the Delta concourse at the Cincinnati Airport last month, and the second, with seven cubicles, opens in Seattle this week.
     For $8.95 per half hour, Merril promises users a place to get some work done without having to scramble for a connection or compete with the commotion of a busy airport. And visitors can accept incoming calls. “You can’t receive calls anywhere else in the airport,” Merril says.
Laptop Lane employee Anitra Sherrill tests out the new equipment. (Annie Musselman/ABCNEWS)

    Each cube contains a desk, a phone, a fax machine, high-speed Internet access and a top-of-the-line PC. “It’s a private 6-by-8-foot space with your own private door,” Merril says. That door is important, according to Laptop Lane’s founder, because it means people can work on important task without worry that others know about their private business.
    Merril’s emphasis on privacy extends to the PCs in his rental cubes. “When a person leaves, the hard drive is completely rewritten,” he explains. “It’s like having a completely new computer.”

Fly The Latest Microns
To keep the computers constantly upgraded, Laptop Lane cut a special deal with Micron for equipment. Every six months, every PC in the chain is replaced with a new unit. That gives Micron a chance to show off their latest models to hundreds of computer users, according to Merril.
    Laptop Lane is a step beyond the common Internet terminals in airports because they are stocked with more equipment, offer some seclusion and are intended for longer use. Merril says the traditional kiosk is used for about 10 minutes, while users visit his cubes for 40 minutes on average.
    “It’s a different market all together,” he explains. “People can sit down and relax.” Merril’s computers even offer games like Quake and video golf for travelers who want to goof off and relax while waiting for a flight.
    Users visiting Laptop Lane are greeted by a “cyberconcierge” (“ ‘Cyber’ implies that they’re computer literate,” says Merril. “ ‘Concierge’ says that they’ll help you out”), who takes credit cards, gives keys and offers technical support. Users pay $8.95 for 30 minutes, with extra charges for long distance calls and color copies.

Laptops Across America
Merril hopes to make Laptop Lanes as accessible as coffee shops and newsstands. He has plans to open 10 more stores in the next year, and 60 nationwide in the next five years. The next is scheduled for Atlanta in September. He says each costs about $250,000, the same as a typical franchise store in a mall.
    Will Laptop Lane be the next decade’s Starbucks Coffee or Blockbuster Video? Frost & Sullivan analyst Isabel Gallo says that such services are on the rise, but must compete with new technology like cellular modems and handheld computers. “They have competition,” she says. “People have more and more portables and wireless connections these days. It’s a growing market, but not booming.”

Thanks Kinetic!

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