July 9, 2006

Cafe Conundrum: Wi-Fi

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.


  1. I'm writing my graduate thesis on this sort of topic, but I'm focusing more on whether social activity is affected by the laptops- are they "blocking" the opportunity for strangers to talk to one another?
    I'm early in the study process so no results yet. However, its certainly an up and coming issue. Thanks for your post!

  2. As someone who has spent more than 12 hours in that very Jamaica Plains Emack and Bolio's over six visits (my sister lives a block away, has great wifi, 3 active kids, and not that many square feet), I have met more people in that cafe than in my California home town. Maybe because I was traveling, but possibly also because there was less conversation between strangers in my hometown.
    Laptops can be great conversation starters-- more so than books.

    Unfortunately, there wasn't much other wifi on Centre St. I was conscious of whther I was freeloading, and I think others were, too.