The joys and woes of Wi-Fi working

Hurricane Katrina left my street in Miami without power for a week, and as a telecommuter, I had to find places with Internet access in order to work during the outage.

This included connecting several times to a Wi-Fi hotspot at my neighborhood Barnes & Noble bookstore, which also houses a Starbucks coffee shop. Having worked out of the solitude of my home office for the past eight years or so, I have to admit I felt excited when I pulled into the parking lot and walked toward the bookstore armed with my laptop, cell phone and assorted work papers and documents.

After buying a latte, I would find a table and get to work. At noon, I would eat lunch at a nearby place, walk back, spend 20 minutes checking out the books, and then sit back down to earn the rest of the day's pay. Brilliant plan!

Well, let's just say that the arrangement wasn't as convenient as I originally imagined it would be.

First, the good news: I did get my latte, and it was great, as usual. Connecting to the Wi-Fi hotspot was straightforward and the high-speed connection worked great.

Now the gripes.

Power outlets. I was happy to discover that Starbucks chairs were of a shape and height that is conducive to typing with a portable computer on your lap, so for the first 90 minutes of my Wi-Fi adventure, I was rolling along. But then I started running low on battery and I couldn't find a power outlet in the cafe area. The Starbucks attendants confirmed for me that there were none.

Then I noticed a sign placed prominently on a wall saying something to the effect that seating at the cafe is for Starbucks customers, meaning that if you're not drinking coffee or eating a pastry, go slump in a bookstore chair. So I gathered my stuff and roamed around the bookstore searching for some place to plug in my machine.

I found a power outlet in a nice spot by a big glass window looking onto the sidewalk. There were chairs there as well. Excellent, I thought. But as soon as I sat down with my now plugged-in PC, I immediately realized that while these Barnes & Noble chairs might be great for sitting down to read a book or a magazine, they weren't designed for typing into a laptop.

Which brings me to my second gripe: ergonomics. The chairs were too deep, and the armrests too high. So now I didn't have to worry about running out of battery, but I was quite uncomfortable typing. Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing how lucky I had been to find one of those laptop-unfriendly chairs. At another time, as I made my way from the Starbucks section to plug my machine into this outlet, all the chairs were occupied and all the outlets taken by other patrons. I found a free outlet all right, but in a tight space where there were no chairs, and then I discovered the joys of typing while sitting on the floor.

Finally, the options for the Wi-Fi service, which Barnes & Noble provides in conjunction with SBC Communications Inc., didn't really fit me well. I chose to link up to the hot spot in two-hour connection increments, at US$3.95 each time, because power could be restored to my home at any moment.

I thought the price was reasonable, but I didn't like that the connection lapsed two hours from the moment I first logged on, whether I was online or not. That is, I couldn't be connected for an hour, take a lunch break, and then come back and use the other hour. A more convenient option, unlimited service for $19.95 per month, requires a one-year commitment.

In the end, I was able to get my work done thanks to this Internet connection, and that was the main point. But I also felt that as long as these two companies are offering this valuable service, they could make it more convenient for people who might consider using it for work. I'm not suggesting Barnes & Noble should install sound-proof office cubicles for Wi-Fi users with ergonomically correct chairs and surge-protected multiplugs.

Well, now that I think of it, actually, that might not be a bad idea.

A request for comment about this issue yielded this e-mailed response from Grant Menikoff, Barnes & Noble's manager of Wi-Fi marketing: "Our Wi-Fi program is still in the early stages and we are studying the needs of our customers."

Other interesting tidbits from Menikoff's e-mail: The two-hour "walk up" option -- the one I chose -- is the most popular, and in general, Barnes & Noble has noticed that the Wi-Fi service's weekday usage is higher than weekend usage, "which indicated that we get people using it for business purposes."

Well, then. There you go. Turns out I'm their typical Wi-Fi user.

Doing a bit more to accommodate working Wi-Fi users would certainly make me more likely to every now and then escape the solitude of my home office to get some work done at the bookstore. (Hint: Make power outlets available in cafe areas, sprinkle some laptop-friendly chairs around the bookstore and maybe also install multiplugs in some of the outlets.)

What does Barnes & Noble get in return? I would be very likely to spend some money on a Starbucks latte or two, and on whatever CD or book I've been meaning to get, before I -- ouch! -- order it from Amazon.com.

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