The LA Times files the latest in an endless series of articles about cafés opting out of a Wi-Fi, but with some new insight: Since I filed what I believe is the first in this series of "coffeeshops shut down Wi-Fi" articles in the New York Times back in 2005--"Some Cafe Owners Pull the Plug on Lingering Wi-Fi Users"--I have read hundreds of similar articles, and been quoted in some.
Most recently, my friend Cyrus Farivar filed a story for ABC Radio National in Australia about the Actual Café in Oakland, Calif. The owner of the Actual Café was looking for a sense of community, just like the Victrola coffeeshop owners I profiled in 2005, and found laptops interfered with that.
The LA Times piece has a similar structure, but a different tack. Many of the articles written to this point have been about time-of-day or day-of-week wireless network bans. But I'm seeing an increasing trend towards "no Wi-Fi" at all, or a full-on computer/device ban. Nick Bilton, who heads The New York Times Bits blog, was told he couldn't use his Kindle to read a book at a coffeeshop in Manhattan a few days ago.
Rejecting Wi-Fi or computers has finally migrated from a quirky story to an actual trend. When I wrote the 2005 article, I was trying to state firmly that this wasn't a trend, but it was interesting. In the years since, until perhaps the introduction of the iPad this year, it still seemed like anecdotes. But the anecdotes are now really piling up.
Starbucks shift to free Wi-Fi all the time, instead of a more limited and complicated method of obtaining access for two hours at a go, may have become the rallying cry for independent shops or small chains to set themselves apart. You want free Wi-Fi? Go to Starbucks, you sheep. If you want good coffee or tea, a place to think and talk, and community, come to us. (I've cribbed this idea from the LA Times article, and it's a good one.)
Of course, this depends on the cafés size, the patrons it attracts, its location, and its owners' or managers' feelings. In Seattle, we have a huge range of opinion and configuration. Some cafés make sure there are outlets everywhere, put in small tables, and encourage long visits. Others block outlets, require or encourage regular purchases, and don't allow or want computer use.
The LA Times quotes an owner describing typical camping problem (from Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco):
"We just realized it was a mistake. People would just camp out for hours, literally eight hours on one cup of coffee. We only had 75 seats, and those were always full. It killed the vibe, too."
But the article also quotes the opposite view, from a Seattle coffeeshop.
There's no monolithic problem or answer here. Any time people feel like they can spread over a table for four by themselves for eight hours on a single cup of joe (or bring one themselves; it happens, unbelievably), you're going to have problems.