Coffee shops provide an interesting bridge between the analog and digital; the public and private. Many of us go to a privately-owned space that is open to the public, buy a tangible good, and then spend the rest of the time on our laptops, ignoring the physical space, the public, and the other tangible goods.
At least that's what I did when I was a student. And I liked it that way. The white noise of drinks being ordered, keyboards being tapped, and indie music playing faintly in the background served as the ideal atmosphere in which to get serious work done -- fueled by the unlimited caffeine available, of course.
While some cafes welcome this culture of being the third space (in addition to home and work), the owners of others do not appreciate squatters on prime table real estate. It would be different if these would-be placemakers ordered a new latte every half-hour, followed by yet another croissant, but how many of us actually do that? We're too engrossed in getting that last detail for a client's design just right, solving a mathematical problem that's plagued experts for years, or ruminating about post-postmodernism (not to mention trolling facebook) to realize that the dregs of our soy mocha have long been drained.
It turns out that some cafe owners are fighting back. The Coffee Bar in San Francisco is limiting time spent at its tables to 30 minutes during lunch hours - no laptops allowed. Other cafes require codes for Internet access so that patrons must buy something to receive them, while still others limit Wi-Fi usage to one hour.
This tactic can serve to open up tables for quick service right when they are needed most. Business people are able to grab a quick bite to eat and buy a lot of coffee, while the rest of the off-peak hours can be enjoyed by blog-lovers.
Reactions to this struggle are varied, with many solutions to the greatest happiness for the greatest number being espoused. Aside from whether or not one believes limiting seating times is a good idea (or that driving the Wi-Fi hungry to Starbucks is a bad one), urbanists and planners should consider the function that cafes and similar institutions have in their neighborhoods. Social creatures that we are, humans need a place to meet, re-fuel, and share ideas in a space that's not exactly private. Just how we go about doing it is up for debate.