I suspect that the degree of utilization of public WiFi, such as at pubs and coffee shops varies based on the locale. In Portland, the big city near by, I see a fair number of folks laptoping while sipping something. I still see a lot more people reading or in groups talking than on a laptop though.
In the more rural small town where I live, I see one or two regulars with their laptops in the coffee shops, but rarely see others. McDonalds out here offers free WiFi now too. That seems very counter to their throughput mentality and I've never seen anyone using it.
All of that being said, I have a saying: "There are features you can use and features you can sell." In many cases, I'd say that free WiFi is more of a "feature you can sell." People like the idea of it more than they like actually using it. Of course, outside of my little corner of the planet, things might be very different.
McDonald's is dealing with this as well. There have been times that I chose them because of that when I needed a quick connectivity hit, but I also saw a guy set up a mini-Mac, 24" monitor, and a printer at a table and camp out there for a while. On the other hand, for at least part of that time there was a kid screaming in his ear from the next table. That would have limited my time if I were him...
I think Janine has a really good point. In the US, there are many places now, like coffee shops and sandwich bars, that offer WiFi for free. The result is not only a "heads down" environment, but possibly much more bothersome, people get so engrossed in their texting or their laptop web browsing that they hog their table for hours and hours. Even as other patrons come and go, and perhaps find it hard to get a table at all.
I'm sure that even this is a mixed bag for the establishment. The more engrossed the patrons get, the less food or drink they buy, and the more they discourage others from coming in.
Nothing new in any of this. Everything is a mixed bag, everything has unintended consequences of some kind.
I have a cousin that long made his living in Las Vegas running a set of game machines (think Tetris, not slots) in bars. Customers with lowered inhibitions can be very appealing to vendors in this casual gaming market. I see this as a logical extension to that market. Some bars might even set up default home pages to try to trap some of that revenue.
jackOMT appears to have singled it out. With all the pubs closing, this is merely another way to get customers inside. Coffee shops in North America have been doing this to provide a more inviting atmosphere for awhile now. It seems natural that pubs in the UK would eventually do the same.
The only downside is that it accelerates the 'heads down' mentality. People are already slaves to their devices and free wifi will decrease their inhibitions to send just one more message. Have you ever dealt with one of these people? Face to face conversations are stopped mid-sentence to check their phones. Meetings are interrupted by the clackity clack of text messaging. Our need to be connected to others have created a socity of disconnected people (Whoa, now that's deep).
I'll admit I'd use the wifi to settle a bar room argument (ie who was the lead striker of the Premier League in the 1992 season?), but then again, I probably use my data plan to settle the argument as well. I only use my phone for convenience but others treat it as a necessity.
All this talk has made me thirsty, see you at the pub ... I'll be the one with my phone in my pocket ... having a real conversation ... with real people ... face to face ... what a novel concept.
Whether it is pubs or coffee houses the scene has definitely changed from a gossiping place to a Texting place. Even when groups of friends meet to have a gossip they are actually exchanging latest jokes and pictures over Bluetooth enabled mobiles.
Actually - another thought. The "beer with the boys" also involves doing a quiz. Pub quizzes are common in the UK, but I suspect also peculiar to the UK. A wifi connection would make it easier for OTHER teams to cheat, of course...
There are two reasons why I go to the pub: either for a meal (or occasionally just a drink) with my family or to have a beer with the boys. Neither need a wifi connection. However, pubs in the UK are closing at an alarming rate (possibly due to alcohol becoming increasingly cheap in supermarkets or perhaps the smoking ban). So, if having wifi in a pub means that it can attract a new type of customer and that makes it less likely to close, I'm all for it.
Duane, there's a similar technique used in solar inverters - MPPT. You could call your version the Maximum Pub Productivity Theorem..???
(and if you want volunteers for your study, put my name down please!)