What happens when cafes start offering free wireless Internet access? Does it increase business or attract freeloaders? The Globe has an interesting article on the conundrum, focusing mostly on the establishments' bottom line. But the piece also mentions in passing what I see as another, early 21st-century dilemma: Do laptop-toting patrons make a cafe seem too much like an office?
The photo running with the article, showng five occupied tables at a JP Emack & Bolio's - three with people on laptops - demonstrates the point. It definitely changes the atmosphere when everyone around you is working on a computer instead of talking, reading the paper or daydreaming.
Now I love wi-fi, and since I got my new Palm Pilot, frequently hunt for hot spots so I can check e-mail or quickly surf the Web. And in fact I'm writing this on my home wireless network, so I can sit in the light-filled kitchen and look out at the yard, instead of our cluttered, dingier computer room (which will hopefully be redone next year, but that's another story!)
Unfortunately, though, many Americans (myself among us) haven't learned proper limits between what should be social/relaxation time and what should be work/online time. The cafe-as-office clearly fills a need, especially for the self-employed or telecommuters who crave someplace to work while being around people. But our society also could desperately use more European-style cafes that allow us to simply sit, sip and linger, talking with friends or watching passers by.
My solution? We need two different business models: the office-oriented cafe with Internet access, catering to the plugged-in crowd; and the social cafe, modeled along the traditional Parisian version. Maybe some savvy entrpreneur could even offer both options in different space at the same place.