After taking his daughter to school, Kyahn Kamali proceeds to one of his satellite offices -- a relatively new Starbucks in North Baltimore. There, he sits at the bar, orders a latte, opens his laptop computer and logs on to the Internet.
"It's been about 15 months since I last worked in an office," says Kamali, 36, who divides his time between two Internet-centered ventures -- a Latin American healthcare technology company and the online store for Raw Sugar, his wife's retail business in Belvedere Square.
The health-care business Kamali works for has an office in Silver Spring. "But there's no point in me driving an hour each way. ... [Those] at the end of the e-mail don't care," he says.
Welcome to Laptopia, a virtual country populated by industrious nomads. From the City Cafe in Mount Vernon to Kiss Cafe in Canton, from the Inner Harbor to suburban malls, students, writers, former desk jockeys, all wielding laptops, have taken the workplace -- and their cyber playgrounds -- with them.
The explosive growth of WiFi, short for "wireless fidelity," is largely propelling this sociological change. With wireless access to the Internet available in thousands of coffeehouses, airports, libraries, restaurants and other "hot spots," laptop users worldwide have erased the boundaries that have traditionally separated the spaces in which they live, work and socialize.
"Clearly we are in the midst of a major redefinition of what's public and what's private," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Once confined to cubicles, dorm rooms or back bedrooms, Internet users by the millions now have the freedom to work anywhere. More and more, they're choosing to work in public. When it launched WiFi wireless service in 1,200 stores in 2002, Starbucks jump-started the phenomenon on a wide scale. WiFi is now available at more than 2,700 Starbucks stores.
On any given day, 20 to more than 50 percent of the professional work force in the United States conducts business outside the office using laptops and other remote devices, according to various estimates. Factor in students, writers and those employed outside the corporate world, and the laptop population grows by leaps and bounds.
This "newer way of connecting with technology is really changing our lifestyles," says Mario Armstrong, host of the weekly WYPR program Digital Cafe. "At the Kiss Cafe, there are people who call that their office," where they toil on laptops and cell phones and hold meetings, says Armstrong, who was instrumental in bringing wireless service to the Inner Harbor.
"Mobile professionals" such as Alan Bronnenberg of Bloomington, Ind., have helped to alter demographics in coffee shops that might otherwise be populated by mothers, nannies and young children during the day.
Nestled in an easy chair at a Starbucks in Pikesville, Bronnenberg, who provides medical and marketing advice to pharmaceutical companies, communicates wirelessly with clients around the country, some of whom are perched in other Starbucks outlets.
The $30 he spends daily on cappuccinos -- that adds up to about nine grandes -- is far cheaper than renting office space, says Bronnenberg, 52, who commutes to a cafe even when home. When he's traveling by car and has an idea, he pulls off the highway and finds the nearest wireless cafe to e-mail a client.
"There's a tremendous amount of people working like this now," he says. More than once, Bronnenberg has spotted a cafe cohort don a tie pulled from a pocket just in time for the day's first business appointment.
Digital divide widens
For Bronnenberg and other road warriors, the loss of office camaraderie is a small price to pay for wireless flexibility. Others who work in public places may be gladly exchanging their lonely home office or dormitory for an environment bubbling with activity and chatter.
As the number of wireless users soars, the digital divide widens, says Chuck Huff, a professor of psychology at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Many of those who work in coffeehouses have had their computers purchased for them by employers who realize "they can get more work out of them," says Huff, who specializes in social and ethical issues in computing. "But there's a whole group of other people who staff telephone support rooms, who are tethered both to a place and to the technology, and the technology watches their every keystroke."
The WiFi revolution has also escalated a debate among cultural observers about whether cafes and other community spaces where citizens interact are threatened by a laptop-centric society. Some fear that the "third place," as such public spaces are referred to, has been replaced by the virtual community.
In this scenario, the traditional image of an author penning a masterpiece at a corner cafe is usurped by throngs of laptop users who may be playing online games or checking sports scores instead of observing the human comedy. On a recent Saturday at the Daily Grind, for example, one room crowded with customers huddled over laptops feels less like a social gathering place and more like a hushed study hall, one where books, pens and notebooks have given way to screens.
Huff sees these changes differently. "If you wanted to be a pessimist, you could say that the public space is being transformed into private space again, but I think that's a narrow view," he says.
"In fact, some of those people who are on a wireless network are [also] talking to other people," Huff says. "It's an intersection of public spaces, instead of it just being a person having her nose in a computer."
Evergreen, a North Baltimore coffeehouse that offers free wireless service, deliberately caters to its laptop regulars. "We actually offer a bottomless cup of coffee," says co-owner Mike Sproge. For $1.50, cafe habitues get unlimited refills in a designated mug. In the acknowledgements of their new books, two local authors plan to thank Sproge and his partner Glen Breining for their hospitality.
Some folks work, dine and socialize at Evergreen, arriving for breakfast and remaining for lunch and dinner, Sproge says. A community has evolved among these customers, who exchange greetings and help one another out if a cell phone goes dead or a server crashes, he says.
When classical vocalist Ah Hong goes online at Evergreen, she doesn't retreat from cafe culture. While checking e-mail and munching an almond croissant, Hong says, "I love the music, the window and being around people who don't know me and are not asking about work, and I have my coffee. ... This doesn't seem like work." After completing her online chores, Hong, 32, will head to Towson University, where she is a faculty member.
A cafe filled with people peering at their screens doesn't discourage new clientele, Sproge says. It is actually a more attractive lure for prospective customers, even if they are laptopless, he says. Who would opt to patronize a place that doesn't welcome laptop use and is therefore chronically empty, Sproge asks.
As liberating as it may be, life in Laptopia begs for a new school of etiquette. Must a table of giggling friends at a cafe defer to the laptopper hard at work next to them? How many hours should you spend working on your laptop while nursing one small coffee? If you've come alone to write, is it only proper to choose a small table?
Besides questionable manners, WiFi has also generated a form of miserliness. Kamali says he often sees professionals in suits and ties pull up to Starbucks, use the store's signal, then drive off. "They don't even come in for coffee," he says.
Kamali likes the lattes but says, "I try not to wear out my welcome." He divides his office hours among the North Baltimore Starbucks, others around town and Borders in Towson. (He also determines where to work based on what wireless-enabled spots are close to decent lunch spots.)
Then there are the laptop exhibitionists. Some, whether they go online or not, seem to get an ego boost by turning their labors into public spectacle. "Certainly there is the issue of the symbolic self-completion, of showing the kind of person [a laptopper is] to other people and also to themselves," Huff says. "But it's probably also the case that there are simply differences in the sort of optimal levels of stimulation that people prefer."
That's why Yu-Chan Chiu, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, frequents the Daily Grind. It may sound strange, Chiu says as she polishes her dissertation, "but the library is too quiet."
Whether Laptopia is a boon for coffeehouse owners who depend on selling so many espressos and muffins is unclear. In "a practical business sense, this is our loss leader," Sproge says of Evergreen's free wireless service. "If we can get new people in the door because it's free, we think we can capture them with our food and our coffee."
The more important consideration, Sproge says, is the intangible value of building a community where "people can come and feel comfortable and bring the kids and work and write novels."
WiFi manners: businesslike or boorish?
The laptop computer, like the cell phone, poses a challenge for the well-mannered citizen. Letitia Baldrige, the Washington etiquette maven who has written on executive manners, disdains the public use of laptops.
Victor Ganderson, owner of the Kiss Cafe in Canton, gladly welcomes the practice.
Most people who use their laptops in the open "do it to draw attention to themselves," Baldrige says. "I think it's a crutch."
When people "do it in a group, I think it's incredibly rude," she says. "I don't know how we're going to get rid of it. It's anti-social and anti-conversational."
There's "a constant danger of having mustard flying into the laptop," Baldrige says. "I think you deserve that when that happens."
If you insist on working in a cafe, don't just pay for a cup of coffee, "get a sandwich," Baldrige says.
Ganderson, on the other hand, invites laptop users to Kiss Cafe with free wireless service. In turn, his laptop-using patrons, including doctors, lawyers, students and professionals who ordinarily work out of their homes, observe the unspoken rules of public computing etiquette. "I have never had a problem with a laptop user," he says.
The users, about 120 a week, tend to tip a little extra, and spend at least $5, Ganderson says.
He speaks of one patron, an Australian who sold grease to subway and railroad systems, as the "epitome of your laptop user." For six weeks, he had breakfast, lunch and dinner at the cafe, while checking e-mail, holding meetings and giving sales presentations.
"To rent an office would be close to five grand," Ganderson says. "Instead, he spent about $50 to $60 a day here, and in that way he would save and I would benefit."
-- Stephanie Shapiro