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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.
My friend, Cyrus Farivar, filed this report for ABC Radio National in Australia's Future Tense program: Cyrus, who lives in Oakland, but is currently studying in Berlin, takes a look at the Actual Cafe, a coffeeshop that Sal Bednarz opened to bring people into a sense of community in Oakland. Oakland has a high crime rate, and a long history of government neglect and outright animosity. It's a tough place to live, even though plenty of people love living there.
Bednarz, as I wrote back in February (tipped by Cyrus, of course), was dismayed to see that people weren't talking and interacting, but that face-down computing filled his store. After a long dialog with customers, some of it online, he opted for a laptop-free weekend policy. It's not enforced with a heavy hand, and customers seem to like it.
Cafes are still struggling to sort out their identities with everyone toting a laptop and wanting Internet access: My friend Cyrus Farivar tipped me to a cafe near him in Oakland, Calif., that's trying not just turning off Wi-Fi, but asking folks to not use laptops at all. (That solves the 3G card problem, too.)
When I walked out into our dining room last week, and saw a sea of laptops, with tangles of power cords everywhere, and so many people wearing headphones, it really upset me. And so I set out to figure out what was so upsetting, and why.
He goes on to talk about community - "we must each support it as individuals" - and then notes,
If we lose money because all or most of our seats are taken by people who spend little money and much time, our business is at risk. Cafes fail all the time. When that happens, we all lose.
This story, which keeps getting written - although I claim dibs as first! - resonates with people because it's about the erosion of conversation, communication, public space. It's about silencing voices. A room full of laptops has the odor of a library, and people shut up. (Update: The San Francisco Examiner takes a good look at this cafe and the context around its decision.)
When a coffeeshop opened a few years ago near my home (not naming names), I went in the first week, and welcomed the manager. I told her how happy the neighborhood would be to have a cafe right there. Her reaction was pretty cold. Over a short time, I discovered that the cafe and its hiring practices favored frosty hip. The baristas have no charm. The place is dark wood, low lighting, semi-uncomfortable. It exudes, quiet, quiet, quiet. I've only been in there a half-dozen times since. (I'm not an annoying customer. In another shop near an old office, I learned every baristas' name, and won a free drink as a result, still am in touch with one manager, and helped get a friend hired. They would typically have my favorite drink in process before I got to the register.)
Cafes like Actual Cafe want to create a third place for people, in which commerce is a component, but conversation is part of what you get. You know the coffeeshops like this. You want in and there's a hum and a buzz, and a warm feeling, and the sound of the sssssshhhhhh from the espresso machine. The coffee may be good or great, but you go because the vibe makes you feel more human.
[Photo by Cyrus Farivar.]
This story ties unemployed folks to higher rates of longer squatting in cafes: The Wall Street Journal reporter writes,
Amid the economic downturn, there are fewer places in New York to plug in computers. As idle workers fill coffee-shop tables -- nursing a single cup, if that, and surfing the Web for hours -- and as shop owners struggle to stay in business, a decade-old love affair between coffee shops and laptop-wielding customers is fading.
Oddly, I believe I wrote this same story with the same concerns at the top of the market in 2005, when cafe owners were, well, already having seen the love affair dim. Taking a hint from a Seattle cafe that turned off Wi-Fi on the weekends, Victrola in Capitol Hill, I wrote in the New York Times four years ago:
...there was also a disadvantage [to offering free Wi-Fi], staff members said: the cafe filled with laptop users each weekend, often one to a table meant for four. Some would sit for six to eight hours purchasing a single drink, or nothing at all.
(I also wrote about Victrola in more detail on this blog.)
This conflict between squatter and cafe owner has been true since Wi-Fi started to become heavily used as it became a standard feature in laptops or available through a cheap add-on card back in 2002 to 2003. Cafes that had attached an AirPort router to a DSL connection suddenly found themselves a bit at sea.
I have heard repeatedly (as the WSJ article notes) that there are folks who are either shameless enough or feel entitled enough that they bring in their own food or coffee, or purchase nothing, and then complain when asked to make a purchase or leave.
There's nothing new here, but it's interesting to see an old trend get hooked to the latest problem that brings people into "third places," away from home and work--especially given that they may have no work.
Starbucks has opened a store without its name in the title with free Wi-Fi: In Seattle, the home of that is right and good (and trendy) about hot and cold beverage consumption made by the hands of humans, Starbucks opened 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. The Starbucks name is relatively hidden, apparently in small type here and there. The store doesn't sell frappucinos, it has a manual espresso machine, and it focuses on specialty tastes and custom tweaking of coffee. There's a Clover there, of course. You can read about the store in greater detail via the link above (Seattle Post Intelligencer) or in this story at the Seattle Times.
And it has free Wi-Fi. My colleague Brian Chin tweets that there's an attwifi network name, but there's no password required for access. Because the store apes independent and small-chain coffee shops in the vicinity, Starbucks is echoing the free Wi-Fi in those stores as well.
The store is near Victrola Coffee and Art, a store I wrote about in 2005 for this site and the New York Times when the owners at that time chose to turn off Wi-Fi on the weekends. (The WNN story was the most-commented article I've ever had on the site, except for a thread complaining about Linksys firmware.)
Beautifully detailed story at ComputerWorld on the reaction of non-Starbucks cafes to Starbucks switch to more free Wi-Fi with AT&T as partner: The reporter spoke to a lot of cafe owners and chains, and elicited some marvelous responses. The short story is: Hey, we've been free for a while; what took Starbucks so long?
Unlimited means unlimited, except in the cell world: Apple signed on to the embarrassing doublespeak of the cellular telephone industry yesterday in its launch with UK cell carrier O2 of the iPhone in Britain. O2 added Wi-Fi to the mix via The Cloud's 7,500 locations as part of the included price in any of three reported plans for service, which start at £35 for 200 minutes of calls and 200 SMS messages. The data plans for EDGE and Wi-Fi are "unlimited" not unlimited. The footnote on O2's information page says that unlimited "fair usage" is included. But that's just garbage.
Just like Verizon's definition of "unlimited BroadbandAccess" meaning "about 5 GB a month regardless of your use, and we'll pretend you're using it illegitimately if you exceed that amount even if you're using it for purposes we define," O2 is playing games. It's not unlimited. It's a limited, unmetered service. You are not paying per byte, but they have a number in their systems, which the company head defined at a press event yesterday as "no more than 1,400 Web page downloads" per day.
Examining O2's site, I can find no specific mention as to what fair usage constitutes for an iPhone. The BlackBerry plan includes just 75 MB per month as part of unlimited fair usage. A special "1024" plan includes 1 GB per month in that definition
The lack of a definition, and the weasel-like nature of redefining a perfectly straightforward word to create market confusion and deception, in which customers are incapable of knowing what's meant even after they sign up for service, is despicable.
Apple should know better.
I would like to call for a set of consumer complaints against the misuse of this term. Any time you see the word "unlimited" used with a proviso or asterisk, write your national regulator or advertising standards board and complain. There's misuse of unlimited privileges, which I can understand: someone using a service in contravention of reasonable terms. But that's not what cell companies mean. They mean, whatever you're doing, however reasonable, we set the limit in unlimited.
I was just down at a new coffeeshop that opened in my small Seattle neighborhood, and it was quiet--too quiet: As I heard from Sean Savage about 18 months ago, and wrote about in a New York Times article about cafés that were pulling the plug on Wi-Fi at times, his researched showed that coffeeshops can be classified as "office," "social," or a hybrid. To quote myself, "...an office cafe discouraged conversation and was filled with people who came alone and were focused on their work. Social cafes have customers who arrive in groups. 'If you come into a place like that and it's a particularly busy time, you get dirty looks if you open a laptop and start zoning out,' Mr. Savage said."
Fuel, the café I was in today with my 2-year-old son, has a branch up on Capitol Hill; this is their second outlet. According to a mom I met at our nearby library who lives near the first Fuel, it's habituated by people of all ages, and is a hangout for neighborhood parents, toddlers, and older kids. This new outlet isn't kid unfriendly--it's not hostile. But it's a bit hipster and dark.
It's also optimized for laptops. Lots of outlets, and many two-person tables. When I walked in this afternoon, it wasn't deathly quiet, but it was a bit still, even with the pleasantly low-level music playing. I counted about five laptops when I walked in, four of which seemed to be filled with programming, including two side-by-side extreme programmers. Another one or two showed up before I left.
As a neighborhood cafe, they're likely to want to create the warm, social environment that produces lots of regulars, but the office environment isn't likely to foster that. It's possible that reorganizing the place slightly to encourage or suggest laptop users are in spot and more social users elsewhere could change the dynamic, but I think it's something that all café owners are wrestling with.
I'm cracking wise at the expense of a business reporter in Greensboro, North Carolina: The reporter is clearly just representing what was told to him in good conscience by the owner of a cafe in that fine city that had its Internet service yanked when it was discovered that millions of pieces of spam were initiated from their network. The Green Bean's owner is paraphrase by the reporter saying, "the agency that monitors the Internet for spam violations temporarily closed off the Green Bean's wireless access early this week after the spammer's mass mailing." I think he meant "monitors the internets"--all of 'em.
However, I crack wise because it's a problem that's been widely suggested as a flaw in free and/or open Wi-Fi networks operating all over. The terrorists might use them. Spammers might use them. Child porn aficionados might use them (remember the wrong-way driving, pants-down Canadian?).
What's more likely to have happened here is not that millions of pieces of spam were sent over the Wi-Fi network, but that a spam push was tracked down to having been initiated from that network. Sending a million pieces of email over a 384 Kbps to 768 Kbps upstream connection would take an inordinate amount of time and be noticed. Still a little tricky to state precisely what happened.
The "agency that monitors the Internet" would most likely be the ISP from which Green Bean purchases its Internet access. Green Bean charges a dollar a day for access, and might switch to a time-delimited password system. The owner might also put in filtering software to restrict outbound email.
Xeni Jardin spent weeks off in northern India looking into how technology and media have affected the Tibetans living here: She talks in one of her four reports for NPR radio show Day to Day about a mesh wireless network that uses Tibetan Buddhist temples--typically the highest point in towns--and abandoned radio towers. This isn't a public Wi-Fi network. Rather, it's a tool for communicating about Tibetan culture among their own society and with the outside world. Nodes are solar-powered; batteries are heavily used where electricity is relied on. About 2,000 computers hook into this network, and a summit will be held in October.
This was part three of four. Part I deals with a nomadic Hindu tribe that lives near the Himalayas; the second, about Tibet's exile community's connections via the Web; and the final about "Lhasa Vegas," in which prostrating pilgrims are juxtaposed against "garish sights and sounds."
The Houston Chronicle documents the move to make room for Wi-Fi and laptops everywhere one eats or drinks: Cafes started offering Wi-Fi way back in 2000, with hundreds offering the service by 2001, and thousands by 2002. While some early Internet access was found in restaurants, it was still strange to have people carrying Wi-Fi equipped laptops; no handhelds offered the service. Now, with Wi-Fi in every device, venues are making more and more accommodation for lengthy users.
An interesting story early in the article details a wine bar adding Wi-Fi primarily to help its network of wine vendors and buyers have convenient access for placing orders as a thank-you for their business. Because coffeeshops are now crowded with users, Wi-Fi elsewhere seems to have gained in popularity because there's still places to sit.
A tea shop found the mythical Wi-Fi-to-dollars conversion, too: "Many customers 'will open a tab,' Bell adds. They may start their visit with a cup of tea and move on to a meal."
This article is a neat contrast to the minor trend I was alerted to last year, with locations that were limiting Wi-Fi or engaged in some battles with Wi-Fi users who lingered (or didn't make a purchase). [link via Steve Titch]
The folks at Victrola Cafe & Art were already sick of talking about Wi-Fi--I dare not guess how they feel now: A colleague tipped me to Victrola turning off Wi-Fi on weekends, and I published a short interview with one of the owners on my site. That built through links from other sites, and I've wound up writing about it for the New York Times in a story that appears in Monday's Business section (June 13).
Meanwhile, National Public Radio's All Things Considered picked it up for today's broadcast (Sunday).
The owners and staff are incredibly nice people, and just seeing them interact with their regulars the other morning when I stopped by to interview them in person and when the photo was taken it was clear that they had a loyal group. One regular with a laptop was only half-jokingly concerned that if he made it into the photograph in print it would be captioned that he was a villain. (I assured him it would not.)
The media attention focused on Victrola is certainly partly my fault, but it's also testament to the power of a simple idea expressed in cultural terms. It's very likely that Victrola's move will spark a mini-trend in which cafes point to Victrola as their motivation for trying out limiting Wi-Fi service when it doesn't work for them.
The folks at Victrola had a slightly hilarious idea: a house roast they would call Wi-Fi. If someone called and asked if they had Wi-Fi, they could say yes. When customers tried to find out about Wi-Fi, they could serve them coffee. They were only half-kidding. I imagine a Wi-Fi blend would be a great mail-order gift item.
Could pulling Wi-Fi improve discourse and create intellectual pursuits? Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses and technology editor of The Economist, offers this commentary on why turning off Wi-Fi might be a good thing for the commerce of ideas. "Turning off the Wi-Fi keeps coffeeshops true to their roots," he says on today's Marketplace Morning Report.
Standage recounts how early coffeehouses created cultures of ideas, and inspired Newton to write Principia Mathematica. Also, more (or less?) importantly, the French Revolution was ignited in one. Standage points out that coffee and commerce are connected, but face-to-face conversation need more priority.
My story on Victrola Cafe & Art in Seattle has shot round the world: I credit a colleague with tipping me to the coffeeshop pulling its Wi-Fi plug on weekends to take back their culture from laptop-toting, non-buying, seat-squandering, table-hogging users.
The Stranger, one of two local weekly papers, filed a great piece on the Seattle angle of this story, crediting this site with opening up the story. The Financial Times ran a piece on it, too, quite short and without mentioning this blog (boo hoo to me).
Tonx, Victrola's roaster, stated pretty clearly what Victrola is up against on the laissez-faire enforcement side in a comment he wrote on his own blog post about the Wi-Fi-free weekends:
"We don’t want our baristas to be either authority-figures/cops or “how may i take your order” pbtc (people-behind-the-counter). Our customers are our friends/peers/neighbors, and though people walk in with a lot of sociological baggage when a cash register enters the picture, the sustainability of Victrola as a business is as much dependant on it being a low-bullshit atmosphere as it is on whether or not you buy a macaroon with your espresso."
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer weighed in on Saturday with a very nice piece on the local angle, also looking at the social and cultural aspects of cafe "living." It notes that their branch near University Village (a wonderful outdoor mall near my home in Seattle) is doubling is size due to Wi-Fi using patrons. Zoka's Wi-Fi is free.
Telepolis also wrote about the Zombie effect in cafes (in German) at Victrola. The opening sentence reads, "In many American cafes that have Wi-Fi Internet access, more and more people sit silently for hours in front of their notebook computers to the displeasure of the proprietors and other patrons."
It's too early to say whether it's a trend, but Victrola Coffee & Art in Seattle shuts down its free Wi-Fi on Saturday and Sunday: I spoke to co-owner and co-founder Jen Strongin today after a colleague tipped me to the fact that this lovely, single-shop coffee establishment had decided to experiment with taking back its culture by turning off the Wi-Fi juice on weekends.
Strongin said that the five-year-old cafe added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago. It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year "we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe." Before Wi-Fi, "People talked to each other, strangers met each other," she said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. "Those people co-existed with people having conversations," said Strongin.
But "over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more," she said. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers. Many laptop users occupy two or more seats by themselves, as well. Victrola isn't on the way to anywhere; it's in the middle of a vibrant stretch of shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill's 15th Ave. It's exactly the kind of place that you want to sit down in, not just breeze through.
Worse than just the sheer number of laptop users, Strongin noted, is that many of these patrons will camp six to eight hours--and not buy anything. This seemed astounding to me, but she said that it was typical, not unusual. The staff doesn't want to have to enforce the cafe's unspoken policy of making a purchase to use the space (and the Wi-Fi), and on the occasions that they approach a non-buyer about a purchase asking, "Can I get you a beverage?" the squatter often becomes defensive, explains they've bought a lot in the past or just the day before.
"It's just really really difficult. We've had so many heated debates about it. We want people to linger at the cafe. We're not a fast-food coffeeshop. We want people to feel comfortable staying here as long as they please," Strongin said.
They've gone two weekends with no Wi-Fi, and so far, they're pleased with the results. The staff "loves it," she said, and regular customers are "coming up to us and thanking us." They have received a few nasty emails. But Strongin said that last Sunday was one of the best revenue days they've had on the weekends in a while. "It was kind of a bold move."
Strongin says that Victrola isn't interested in charging for Wi-Fi as a tool to limit or moderate use, and still thinks that free Wi-Fi is a great amenity that they can offer their customers at the right time. They have no plans to remove it entirely.
But, she said, "I don't like going into a cafe, any cafe, including my own, and just seeing a sea of laptops and people not interacting."
Update: Tonx, Victrola's roaster, posted his own insider take on the matter. He notes, "A few customers were in painful enough withdrawal that they stayed home, finding time to send email about how upsetting it was. But the overwhelming response was positive."
Sarah Myland Kaufman laments New York's lack of commuter Internet access: This graduate student in urban planning at NYC argues cogently that particularly the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) that among other duties operates the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North lines into Connecticut and upstate New York needs to talk about offering commuter Wi-Fi.
Her argument has a few parts: first, it's a bonus for commuters who can suddenly see an increase in productivity during idle hours. Some people may like to read, sleep, or sit quietly; for others, it's time they're not at home and not at work, and that's probably a large pool. Secondly, the MTA could use the Wi-Fi infrastructure for improving their own information gathering and logistics. The fees from commuters could pay for the expense of the logistics management.
It does struck me as somewhat amusing that remote communities on islands in Washington State will have Wi-Fi on their ferry docks and ferries by next year, while the densest commuting environment in the U.S. will have no access at all.
Salon argues that the growth of wireless clouds encourages more use of the agora: Public places may have been in decline, but shared experiences are growing now that wireless clouds blanket downtowns and communities. ...Cutting-edge mobile and wireless services emphasize proximity over connectivity, the local over the global and the here and now rather than anytime, anywhere.
The article runs through location-based services, wireless scavenger hunts, and overlaying digital details on top of physical places. Some interesting opportunities arise out of ubiquitous clouds combined with data: Page recently completed a comprehensive technology strategy for a distressed neighborhood in northern Philadelphia, including a community technology center where Temple University faculty will teach kids GIS (geographic information system) skills to build a database for the neighborhood, and public art that will double as a digital bulletin board accessible from a public place.
Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet, points out the coffeeshop range dilemma: Peter Zale's Helen is the smartest techie in the world, but her low-tech ersatz boyfriend gets the last laugh in this Sunday comic.
Paul Gilster writes about the problem of audiences at events with Wi-Fi access: The not-so-silent clacking of keys provides a sensory backdrop much like a white-noise generator. You speak, and a constant barrage of tippity tap tap clack clickety clack echoes in the background. It's not symmetrical: at times, people listen and the typing stops. Other times, one lone typer hammers away--is he or she blogging what you're saying or playing Doom? The sounds rises and falls randomly in different parts of the room.
Interestingly, he talks about the second level of communication being a basement meeting, but I think he hasn't seen an O'Reilly conference in action. At Emerging Technology in April, there were always several simultaneous channels: it was more like instant analysis and commentary of a live event. People would blog and post; using IM, including IRC channels; use SubEthaEdit (ne Hydra) for Mac OS X Rendezvous collaborative note taking; use some of the unique services for discussion or note posting. [via Smart Mobs]