Third Place: Free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, But Not Cafe Grumpy?

nolaptopThe coffee shop has long been an valuable digital oasis for freelancers and untethered workers, providing an essential mix of cake, connectivity and company. It has inadvertently, and sometimes deliberately, become the third place, figuratively located between home and work.

Last December we reported that the UK’s Pret a Manger chain was launching free Wi-Fi access — now it seems they’re set to be joined by Starbucks, at just over 500 locations throughout the UK.

Though Starbucks has long offered paid Wi-Fi via T-Mobile and BT, as well as complimentary iPhone usage, this latest development is purported to open connectivity to anyone using Starbucks’ prepay cards.

Curiously, while at one time smaller indie outlets would offer free Wi-Fi connectivity to compete with the bigger players, it seems they’re now curtailing their generosity, just as the larger chains are starting to offer complimentary access.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some stores are now covering up electrical outlets and limiting the time that customers are allowed to use a laptop — unless they’re eating or drinking something. It seems that in New York City, the recession has driven idle workers to nursing the same cup for hours at a time — behavior that’s starting to impact stores’ businesses.

Coffee shops in New York in particular — one independent chain of stores is aptly called Cafe Grumpy — seem to be leading the charge in withdrawing perks from their customers. This might be more understandable when you learn that some frugal customers are starting bringing their own food, cups and teabags.

There’s always been an unwritten social contract between web workers and store owners: Workers help make a place look busy and spend enough for owners to ignore the overhead caused by their usage of connectivity and power, while cafe owners provide a “demi-office” environment for the workers. When someone tries to take take advantage of such a delicate balance, it’s only understandable that the relationship begins to break down.

Sadly, as CNET’s Rafe Needleman illustrates, independent stores owners are likely to lose this battle as larger chains draw workers away with their drift towards free connectivity.

Personally, I believe independent owners can be more creative in supporting the untethered — perhaps providing low-cost subscription plans for access to various resources is one way to go, or arranging blocks of time or events to support web workers. These are all personal touches that are harder for larger chains to match.

Do you think the coffee shop/web worker social contract is equitable? What can be done to keep a balance?

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