The Apple Store has turned into America's unofficial teen center

If you have an Apple Store in your city, you know that it's not always a good place to test drive a new computer. Its sturdy tables are evenly lined with the latest models, but good luck using one of them. There's always someone ahead of you. Even at empty malls populated mostly with piano stores and tumbleweeds, the Apple Store is jamming.

That's because of the free Web access. Apple computers, being cutting-edge, are much less useful without internet access, so its dozen-odd floor models are eternally connected to the Web. That's where the kids come in.

A decade ago, when fewer people had their own computers, if you wanted to get online when you weren't home, you had to go to an internet cafe. But today, moneyed people tote Blackberries and wifi-enabled laptops, so the American internet cafe is all but dead. Except that many high school kids are too young to have jobs and usually don't have their own laptops. So they can't get online at Starbucks or Panera Bread, like the rest of us. They go to the Apple Store, where they can borrow the computer without charge or time limit.

That's attraction enough for those too young to have private Web access (and for those with prying parents back home). But then there's the fact that most Apple computers now come with built-in cameras. Lots of kids are hitting the Apple Store just to take shots of themselves with the webcam. Facebook will take and post a shot of you directly from your profile page. In fact, one Michigan teen just started a new Facebook group called "I Only Go 2 The Apple Store To Take Photos and Put Them On Facebook." There are already 68 members.
I was in an Apple Store last month in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. No one seemed to be testing the applications that were for sale. Instead, they were checking MySpace, Facebook, Hotmail, and headlines. At two of the computers in the corner, one guy was talking to a girl via webchat, and beside him, a youth was surfing big-bosom porn sites. I asked one of the clerks, who wasn't much older than either of them, if he'd noticed all the young kids hanging out and using the store like an internet cafe. "That's pretty much everyone here," he said, and laughed. He said he never hustles the kids away and that he's never been told to.

The scene repeats itself no matter which city I'm in, whether it's San Francisco, Chicago, Orlando, or Atlanta. And abroad, too, in its own way. In London, the backpackers aren't going to EasyInternetCafe's sleazy coin-operated dens anymore. They catch up on their Gmail at the Apple Store on Regent Street.

It's a boon for Apple. It gets the cache of having a showroom full of hip youngsters, who will presumably grow up into Mac-buying consumers. But it's not so great for the rest of us, especially when we want to see for ourselves just how light that MacBook Air is.
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