McDonald's is the latest chain to offer free Wi-Fi

When you think of food and beverage chains that are likely to have free Wi-Fi a few logical ones come to mind: Starbucks, Panera Bread, Cosi. There's also Barnes & Noble and Borders Books & Music, though those are late additions to the stable. But before today I'll bet you never considered McDonald's as a viable wi-fi hotspot.

McD's has had Wi-Fi via AT&T for a while; it just wasn't free. I found the concept pretty laughable -- free wireless might tempt me to spend more than 5 minutes in the joint, but to make me pay for it is a guarantee that I won't stick around. Not that it's much of an enticement when it's free. But, come January, at least it's a choice.

There are some good things about this development. Living in New York City, I always forget (until I travel) that free Wi-Fi -- either from cafes/coffee shops or residences with open networks -- is not readily available every few feet. There are only 5 Starbucks locations in my hometown but easily 20 McDonald's. And while I'd have to travel to the strip mall to see a Barnes & Noble, I could walk around the corner for free Wi-Fi when visiting relatives.

Charles King, a principal analyst with Pund-IT, told eWeek that the wireless offer "indicates the degree to which Wi-Fi-based access has become so inexpensive that it can be used as a cheap promotional gimmick." It's like Happy Meal toys. And could be even more effective at getting people into the chain for longer periods of time.

Imagine a future where you walk into a McDonald's and wade through a sea of notebooks. Soon it may prove difficult to find a seat as freelancers and students set up shop to work on their homework or, worse yet, their novels. At least you won't have to spend too much money on food to keep the employees at bay. Just order something from the Dollar Menu every hour and you're golden.