out working

The new professional isn't at the office or home, but down on the corner with a mug of coffee and an open laptop

April 18, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

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.

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