Malling the Cybercafe

I want my coffee served by a guy in an MIT sweatshirt, pocket protector for his Newton wearing glasses so thick they'd stop a .45. I want this Lord of the Geeks to serve me my coffee in a place where the only light comes from the glow of the monitors and the only noise from the clicking of keyboards and mice.I want a place funky enough to lure cyber denizens out of their "shacks," a real-world base from which to foment a cyber revolution.The utopia of my dreams looked imminent in 1991, when coin-operated computers showed up in several San Francisco cafes. Touted by their founders and the press alike as "cybercafes," these sip-'n'-surf spots were supposed to be the place for netizens to mingle. The line in the press was: Think 1920s Paris, with glorious hardware and no geographical limitations. All you needed to start your own cybercafe was a few computers and an espresso machine. Surfers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your change.Since their promising start on the West Coast, these nodes of insurgency have spread to locations as exotic as Cairo, where the cafe Dr. Mona el-Kaddah runs gives Egyptians Net access galore. One even appeared in Helen, Georgia, but City Manager Mike Palmer disqualified himself from revolutionary party favor when he made sure patrons would be barred from sites deemed "generally offensive to a reasonable person." By now, there may be 300 of these joints worldwide, as compared to none six years ago.That's what has me worried. Forget revolution, think franchising. My cyber waiter in his MIT sweatshirt will soon be wearing an Apple uniform. The hardware giant is planning to expand into Starbucks territory. Which doesn't bode well for small-business cybercafes. They're in danger of becoming obsolete, either because of high investment costs or rapid changes in technology.The @ Cafe on St. Marks Place was one of the first cybercafes to open in New York. It had all the right ingredients: trendy interior design and location, first-rate machines, experienced management, and plenty of publicity. @ Cafe's anticipated customers, NYU and Cooper Union students, "stopped in at first to check out the scene," but ultimately "were not interested in paying for Net time after the novelty wore off," according to owner Nicholas Barnes. The @ Cafe has had to reposition itself from a hangout for the digerati to an event-staging spot for cyber-hungry corporations.Other cybercafes in New York have found the demand for Internet time to be less than anticipated. Cyberfelds, for example, is a spin-off business of Village Copier that hoped to attract its presumably techy clientele. But after all the money put into computers and Net providers, Cyberfelds has taken to offering computer classes-in the hopes of making their clientele technically literate. Kokobar, which opened in January as the only cybercafe in Brooklyn, recently pulled its Internet connection when usage fees could not support the cost of a 56K line. How quickly revolutionary fervor cools under the unyielding reality of the bottom line.As Internet consultant and president of Cybersurfer Studios Jason Calacanis puts it, "Computers and Internet connections by themselves are not going to pay the rent." On the other hand, "if you already have a steady clientele, then it may make sense to add computers to show you're on top of things," he adds. That's the good news for Starbucks and Kinkos, both of which, according to Calacanis, are planning to expand into the Net-serving business.Calacanis's prognosis is borne out in Jacksonville, Florida, where Mark Rubin installed six Pentium computers with 21-inch monitors in the restaurant/bar Legends he co-owns. Rubin says this "value-added service" has increased bar revenues by 60 per cent. But that's because Legends does not charge for its Internet time and, according to Rubin, has the fastest connection in town. As he has learned, "If customers think they have to pay, they more or less stand and watch."Even successful cybercafes are courting their own obsolescence: As appreciation for the Internet increases and as more people get on-line at home (perhaps with modems running 100 times faster than telephone lines), the demand for a place to rent computer time will decline.Enter Cybersmith, brainchild of Marshall Smith, a franchise- and mass-marketing guru. The first Cybersmith (many more to come) opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a 5600-square-foot smorgasbord of morphing, virtual reality, and multimedia technology. For $5, you can play a virtual video game, and this high-tech fun will make Net surfing look like the stuff of washed-up revolutionaries who don't know how to kick back.Known in the industry as "location-based entertainment," these parlors of edutainment are the most likely future of the public cyber experience. Imagine: a grandmother in Harbin, China, will play a marathon interactive game of Doom with a retired senator from Russell, Kansas, each from their respective Cybersmith malls. Meanwhile, the little guys serving coffee and teaching people how to double-click will be a distant memory. And the hope that the Net would somehow increase liberte, egalite, fraternite will be manifest only in the evil-empire-shattering titles of virtual games.Smith told Business Week that his Cambridge location will take in $1 million in its first year. If he's right, it's hard to see how public cyber culture will avoid becoming another homogenized product. Instead of thousands of unique cybercafes serving as information hubs, you'll have arcades as different from each other as McDonald's is from Burger King. My waiter, unwilling to take a job with a multinational corporation, will reject the cyber life and take up playing the harp.For a cybercafe near you try:

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