Saturday, February 25, 2006

Coffee Shop

There are some interesting parallels - and important differences - between the businesses that emerged from the coffee shops of the past (see Wikipedia) and those that might emerge from the Wi-Fi enabled coffee shops of the present-day (discussed by Christopher Baus, Niall Kennedy, Om Malik, Stephen O'Grady and others).

What service does the modern coffee shop actually provide? Provide a place where you can fill yourself with caffeine, spend most of the day staring at a laptop, and perhaps meet some friends sometimes? (Apparently some coffee shops switch the broadband off from time, because this is the only way to force people to talk to each other.)

What service did Mr Lloyd provide in his famous coffee shop? Presence! People formed business relationships because they were in the same place at the same time - they didn't spend their whole time talking to people they already knew - let alone talking to people (via mobile phone or Skype) who weren't even there.

Mobile phone companies are surprisingly bad at presence. If I phone someone who happens to be in the same cafe, or the same train, the phone company would rather take my money for an unnecessary call, rather than give me the valuable information that the person I'm talking to is in the same cell. I have visions of technophiles Skyping one another across a crowded cafe, rather than having a proper conversation. Just like the worst kind of office.

But for those of us that aren't so good at striking up conversations with strangers, the technology of presence might help. Suppose the guy on the next table happens to know Stephen (detected via his address book) or reads Stephen's blog (detected by his subscribed feeds). Maybe that gives me an opening for a conversation I might not otherwise have had. I am sure I sit next to people on airplanes, never knowing what interests we have in common. Perhaps I should develop better conversation skills (or so my wife tells me) but in the meantime ...

Telecoms blogger Martin Geddes has been talking about the opportunities (as yet unrealized) from an understanding of conversation and presence, which I mentioned in my earlier post on Personalization and Presence. But these are also opportunities for the coffee shop. Forget LinkedIn, let's have EspressedIn.

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