Some like it hot
The website keeps tabs on the thousands of wi-fi hotspots that are now spreading across the UK at the speed of a particularly virulent outbreak of acne. The cyberguru's guru, Nicholas Negraponte, has assured readers of US tech bible Wired that wi-fi will change "everything you assumed about telecommunications". It is the Next Big Thing. But it's a revolution that is continuing to pass most people by. In a recent survey carried out for Intel, 66 per cent of the population hadn't heard of wi-fi, three per cent thought it was a town in Japan and four per cent reckoned it was a tropical fruit.
In fact, it's the technology that allows a computer, or PDA, equipped with the requisite gizmo to communicate with any other similarly souped-up device within the immediate vicinity - not by means of ye olde wires and cables but via the microwave end of the radio spectrum.
In theory, anyone can set up a hotspot, redistributing a link to the internet to machines that get within a 50 to 100 metre range. So bars, cafes, hotels, restaurants, petrol stations, GNER trains and a motley assortment of other venues are becoming hotspots in the hope that it will give them an edge on the competition.
It's obviously working as you'll now find nomadic netheads gravitating towards most of a city's trendier watering holes. And, since you can't use a laptop in a public place without attracting attention, it has created a new form of performance art. For example, only today I saw a self-important suit with a Toshiba at a pavement cafe who'd drawn a bigger crowd than the Peruvian pipe band across the road. He was typing so slowly that if he'd doused himself in silver paint and put out a collecting tin, he could have earned himself a few bob.
You'll notice that there are several distinct types of surfer. For instance, there's the terminal anorak I saw in a pub not a million light years from a branch of science fiction store Forbidden Planet. When his family and friends told him he ought to get out more, they obviously forgot to add that he should leave the laptop behind. As he surfed the machine bleated out a tinny and unceasing rendition of the Star Wars theme. He had the whole lounge bar to himself. All the other drinkers were huddled in the snug as far away as possible.
Then there's the born showman who hammers the keyboard with the artistic flamboyance of Geoffrey Rush in Shine racing through Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. There's the Laughing Cavalier who chuckles as he surfs - just loudly enough to convince other patrons that he's having a better time than them. More disconcerting are the women you sometimes see alone at corner tables gazing glassy-eyed at the screen while giving a passable impersonation of Meg Ryan's unforgettable performance at a New York deli in When Harry Met Sally.
You might be lucky enough to spot one other type. He's debonair, distinguished and writes a column for the Online supplement of the TES.
Yes, you've guessed it. My excuse is that I live in Cardiff where joining the wi-fi revolution has become nothing less than a civic duty. The council, in partnership with BT, has spared no expense in making Cardiff the Mecca for wi-fiers. The nomad surfer has over 80 hotspots to chose from. In fact, there are probably enough excess microwaves sloshing around the town centre to defrost an MS chicken tikka masala dinner-for-one.
If that wasn't enough, Arwain (www.arwain.net), a collective of amateur enthusiasts, want to distribute the net free-of-charge to anyone who happens to be within receiving distance of the home-made antennae sticking out of their bedroom windows. I spent a long evening kerb-crawling the back streets of the old Tiger Bay, my laptop on the passenger seat ready to receive a glimmer of a radio wave emanating from Arwain's antennae. I also rehearsed my speech: "Honestly, officer, I was only trying to pick up a signal."
It's worth giving wi-fi a try if only to get a taste of a future in which - for better or worse - our laptops and PDAs will ensure that, wherever we go, we'll never again be able to escape the net.
If your laptop isn't able to receive wi-fi, the necessary card needn't cost more than pound;25. To find a venue consult Totalhotspots.com. Or you could text the word "hotspot" to 84140. In return you'll get details of your nearest hotspot but it will cost you a quid. Some venues offer the service for free, but most host BT Openzone, Cloud or T-Mobile who will charge you around a fiver (via your credit card) for a measly hour online.
If you find it difficult to concentrate in a crowded environment, simply click your way to one of the Star Wars websites, turn the volume up to max, and it won't be long before you have the whole place all to yourself.