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February 4, 1996

Cybercafes: More Than Just a Place to Compute


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    By KAREN A. FRENKEL
    Have you ever wanted to be at a party without actually going? Last New Year's Eve you could have done just that. Three cybercafes, @ Cafe in New York, CyberJava in Los Angeles, and CyberSmith in Cambridge, Mass., held a global, interactive bash. An electronic wave of cheers cascaded around the world at 6 o'clock Eastern time. New Yorkers and Bostonians saw Parisians pop their corks at three frames per second through CU-SeeMe, an interactive video platform. And later, Tokyo residents, already in their offices, and Angelenos, anticipating their own midnight hour, watched a pixilated ball drop jerkily in Times Square. Well, here's to virtual toasts and digital Auld Lang Syne.

    Fewer than a dozen cybercafes existed last year, but today there are 250, according to Mark Dziecielewski, keeper of the Cyber Cafe Guide and technical director at Intervid, an Internet provider in London. And some are becoming chains and/or franchises.

    What exactly are cybercafes? Like '50s diners, where patrons called each other's booths with pay phones at their tables, the oldest cybercafes like SFNet (San Francisco circa 1991) offer coin-operated PCs. A quarter buys you five minutes. Most cybercafes offer time on PCs at $3 to $5 an hour, depending on the application. People use electronic mail, play videogames, demo the latest CD-ROMs, and surf. Many Western cafes offer T1s, fast phone lines too expensive for most individuals. Some cybercafes are themselves Internet providers, although regulations in East Asia force the cafes to form strategic alliances with Internet providers instead.

    All cybercafes boast the latest desktop technology. Many also offer classes on computer and Internet basics. Their computer-literate staffs answer basic queries. And many establishments hold promotional parties related to technology.

    Why are they cropping up now? Part of it is the spread of cafes in general: witness the ubiquitous Starbucks. And where five years ago "you could not get a decent espresso in London," Dzieceilewski said, "now there are dozens of places. Computers and coffee do work together. Just have a look in any company or university."

    Some are there "to see what all the Internet and World Wide Web hype is all about before investing in home connections," he said. Others miss being plugged in at home or office. Traveling in digital deserts, these nomads log on at such electronic oases.

    One patron of @ Cafe, Kevin Fitzpatrick, said he found it funky and avant garde. "The Mac here is more powerful than mine--it has a hard drive like a Porsche," he said. "The purveyors are trying to push us into the next millennium a little faster. They want us all to see the next wave." With CU-SeeMe, Fitzpatrick can visit anyone around the world. "You make friends at places like this," he said. "This place takes live chat to the next level."

    New York's cybercafes are in or near the East Village. Naturally they reflect different flavors of cybertaste--you can experience freedom of artistic expression at @Cafe, the thrill of discovery at Internet Cafe, and techno-entertainment at Cyber Cafe.

    Glenn McGinnis, an @ Cafe partner, calls his nightclub/cafe "a multimedia events house." Internet Cafe's owner, Arthur Perley, calls his place a comfortable spot where computer novices gain the knowledge and support they need upon first acquiring a home PC. And it is an alternative for computer consultants with home offices who want to maintain their privacy when entertaining clients. Tomas Wise, a Cyber Cafe owner, thinks of his cafe as a local technology center for SoHo. On weekends, parents drop in with or drop off their kids at this airy loft.

    @ Cafe's Nick Barnes, 33, believes that age is also a factor. His partner, McGinnis, does not remember a time without personal computers. But Barnes says that baby boomers, who went to college when computers were not mandatory, don't want to be left behind. They come because "they feel the empowerment of technology and don't want to miss the revolution," he says. Now eight @ Cafe franchises are in the works, with the next scheduled to open in Buenos Aires in June.

    Perley accounts for the rise of cybercafes with an analysis of the altered PC market. Formerly a financial services technical consultant, he notes that in early 1994, home PC sales eclipsed business PC sales for the first time. Accustomed to the support structures of organizations, new home PC consumers found themselves with no one to answer basic questions about getting online. "I realized there was a real gap in people's knowledge," Perley said. "Once you plug in a computer in your home, that's it. That's as far as it goes. It was difficult, scary, high-tech with sharp edges. I wanted to take the sharp edges off in a relaxed atmosphere."

    And seasoned users come to exchange information. Says Perley, "Although search engines are getting better and URLs are printed on every advertisement, still one of the best ways to know a cool place is to have somebody tell you. This is the kind of place where people do share that information. I find that people come here to find the latest and greatest."

    And women who shy away from bars can use cybercafes as a public place without concern for unwanted pickups. Or if correspondents do want to meet in person, they are safe, too. One patron on IRC invited a pen pal to Cyber Cafe for a rendezvous.

    Cyber Cafe's manager and chef, Bob Angelone, says a decline in the fear of AIDS has also influenced the popularity of cybercafes. "In the '80s, everyone stayed at home in front of their keyboards learning about their computers and being reclusive," he said. "Now they are relaxing a little about AIDS and going out more." Angelone also sees demand for more than light cafe cuisine. People want to eat while surfing, just as they do when watching television. Recalling the resourceful Buffalo restaurateur who, in a blizzard invented Buffalo Wings with what happened to be in the fridge, Angelone muses that he may create the next cyberian culinary hit.

    Perley, on the other hand, enjoys the drama at Internet Cafe. "There is plenty of theater in this place," he said, "but its not at top decibel all the time. People are discovering things. What excites me is that in order to come in here, you have to risk something intellectually and try something you've never done before. There is a lot of excitement and creativity in jumping on."


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