Another one gone: Best Buy buys Speakeasy

Got an e-mail today that Best Buy is now the owner of Speakeasy.

Speakeasy was one of the original local internet service providers in Seattle. Speakeasy always had character. Back in the day Speakeasy was a cybercafe in Seattle, and one of the first. They had text terminals, even. Located in an old building in Seattle’s Belltown district, just north of downtown. That was before Belltown became a hot new spot for gentrification. The original cybercafe was located above a pool hall. That sure was an odd crowd going in and out the front door: geeks going up the stairs and sharks and barflies going down to the pool room.

They used to have events there. I didn’t go to many, but I remember that the silent film festival showed there sometimes.

They were one of the local internet service providers in the old days. They offered dialup accounts along with their cybercafe offerings. I remember that there was a group of small local ISPs that tried to form a supporting organization. I tried to get Seanet to be involved, but Seanet was kind of the enemy to the little guys. Also, the sort-of owner was hostile to the idea of teaming up with that group; wrongly I felt. It was essential because the mom and pop outfits were already getting killed, and the telecom providers would have loved to off all the regional providers given the chance … the writing was on the wall if one paid attention to that sort of thing. The industry had expertise, but was living in a niche created more by ignorance and regulatory restraint than design on behalf of the large teleco providers.

DSL was the sea change. With the advent of faster modems, the technology on the ISP side became a treadmill into the abatoir. US Robotics did a great deal of damage to the industry with their high speed offerings, the proprietary X2 56k stuff, that required really expensive and unreliable equipment, and annual support contracts if there were any hope of support. US Robotics was heavy handed in their marketing too. They would target owners and route around the technical people who had a clue, building pressure from the PHBs to waste money on USR equipment and contracts.

Back then it was still cheaper per line to support dial-up on POTS lines than to aggregate them into thicker pipes to be served by T1 into Portmasters. But, aggregating lines was the beginning of the end. For DSL, enduser connections were moved to the ATM network, and therefore moved to a completely new environment with all kinds of routing rules and priorities that gave the Teleco more and more control over the service. POTS lines were heavily regulated, and so the Teleco really couldn’t do much to push the ISP off them. But, with DSL all the little ISPs were doomed. With each wave of new tech, the price of entry went higher and higher, so no new little shops were starting and the big shops needed to be bigger.

Eventually, I think most ISPs moved to leased infrastructure and became merely services that ran over the network, not even really necessary for the customer. Seanet was looking into that when I left and I’m pretty sure they moved all their dial-up to leased virtual lines. At that point, you’re just a (barely) value-added reseller for the Teleco, and that’s just how the Teleco wanted it all along anyway.

I did manage to make a case for the need, back when cities like Tacoma were trying to tax internet service to their citizens, that there needed to be an industry group with the power to lobby on behalf of our interests. That was back in the beginning of the Washington Association of Internet Service Providers. I notice that Speakeasy is a member, along with some old guard. Zhonka is there, but I don’t remember if the old Olywa was. Of course, Seanet dropped out a long time ago, I recall.

Then there was a fire. I thought Speakeasy was pretty much dead, and I think that’s around the time that I moved so I stopped paying attention. They re-opened, I think, and then closed the cafe …

Then Speakeasy really grew up and became something. They managed to make the transition to DSL, and they offered services that other ISPs didn’t. They really catered to the technical and geeky people, and the gamers. They also had a nice, tight marketing look and feel.

Anyhow, it’s sad to see them go and get purchased, especially by Best Buy. But, you know, the Geek Squad has the same kind of tight marketing look and feel. It’s just Best Buy seems so … K-mart. They look and feel cheap, but actually charge too much for what they sell.

Of course, the irony of the Geek Squad driving around in cars decorated like police vehicles and the rum-running connotations of the Speakeasy … there’s a whole Untouchables narrative there just waiting to be explored.

But, the thing that really gets me is that the e-mail said Best Buy wanted Speakeasy for their VOIP tech:

“One of Speakeasy’s core product offerings is Voice over IP (VoIP), which is becoming a popular choice for small businesses who seek efficient and cost-effective telecommunications services. Best Buy For Business’ mission is to deliver simple, reliable, and affordable technology solutions to small businesses. A product offering such as VoIP, which has immediate compelling appeal to most SBs based on cost savings and simplicity, is an attractive value proposition that allows Best Buy to round out its solutions menu for small businesses.”

I hope Speakeasy survives the corporate urge to take what they want and then trash the rest. And, it seems a little round-about to buy a whole service company in order to get just one particular implementation of a widely known technology. That’s a little like buying Sears because they really know their cash registers …

I can’t help but wonder if this purchase has anything to do with the trouble Vonage has been in with their conflict with Verizon over patents in VOIP calls to land lines.

Update @ 12:51am 28mar:

Wow. I just stumbled across an archived message to talking about the very meeting back in 1996 I was talking about in this post. Crazy to see archives of activity that long ago still searchable, not to mention the nostalgia of it all, back when newsgroups were a useful and daily thing. Of course, most of my activity was in the private Seanet newsgroups, for which there’s no archives.