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  • Sep 2, 2004
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September 2nd, 2004
A decade of Internet cafes ‘The world’s first,’ Cafe Cyberia in London, takes a bow

LONDON:

John Major was prime minister of Britain. The Internet, to most people, was like something out of “The Jetsons.” “Latte” was Italian for “milk,” not American for “coffee.”Ten years ago on Wednesday, Cafe Cyberia, billed as the world’s first Internet cafe, opened in the West End of London. By most accounts, it drew a sleek crowd and a bit of scepticism. ”
The brave new cybernetic world looms, but it’s a safe bet that, for lunch, most Londoners will stick with fish and chips, not silicon chips,” CNN said at the time. Cyberia may not have revolutionized diets, but it has attracted plenty of imitators. Yahoo, the Internet portal company, estimates that 20,000 Internet cafes have opened in more than 100 countries, in cities ranging from Tokyo to, yes, Timbuktu. They serve business travellers, backpackers, people who can’t afford a computer at home or those who simply want a latte. But the business of Internet cafes has changed drastically over a decade, reflecting the broader transformation of the Web from object of futuristic wonder to functional tool of everyday commerce.

While a few cafes and bars in other cities had offered limited online connectivity through the Well, an early on-line “bulletin board,” Eva Pascoe, who founded Cafe Cyberia, said hers was the first public place to combine a commercial link to the Net and a shot of espresso. Pascoe was 29 years old and working on a doctorate in cognitive psychology at the University of London, and she modelled Cafe Cyberia after a project in which she studied how women interacted with computers. A self-described “cyberfeminist” who played on the Polish national basketball team in the early 1980s, she said she saw the cafe, set it up for about l20,000, or about $36,000 today, as a way to encourage more women to become Internet-literate.

“That’s a business plan that didn’t go very far,” Pascoe said in an interview. “The first day we opened, there was a queue of men out the door.”

Others, including Mick Jagger and Maurice Saatchi, the British advertising mogul, joined the line of investors. Cyberia opened cafes in several Asian cities and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But like many entrepreneurs from the early dot-com years, Pascoe left the business in 1998 and went on to other projects. The chain of Cyberia cafes were sold to South Korean investors about three years ago, who rebranded them under the name Be the Reds, or BTR borrowing a cheer shouted by supporters of the South Korean soccer team.

The London cafe now serves a mixed crowd of Korean exchange students from nearby universities and other neighbourhood residents. “People come in to check their e-mail, find out there’s karaoke and keep coming back,” said Roger Park, who manages the cafe. Other things have changed, too, since 1994, when the first Web browsers had barely been invented and a year before Netscape Communication’s initial public stock offering. Internet connections at Cyberia initially were made using enormous modems that dialled in at 9.6 kilobits per second. A decade later, the connection speed at Be the Reds is roughly one-thousand times as fast 10 megabits per second. Perhaps the biggest transformation has been in the business model. Internet cafes may have started as refuges for black-clad cyber- hipsters, but they quickly moved on to a bigger market. At the height of the Internet hype in 1999, the Greek-British entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of EasyJet, extended the Easy brand to Internet cafes, opening a huge shop near London’s Victoria station, which was followed by an even bigger, 500-computer version in Times Square in New York.

Haji-Ioannou has said that he overinvested in the business, which turned into a big money-loser for his EasyGroup. To mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of Cafe Cyberia, Yahoo Mail, the e-mail service, handed out awards to Internet cafes around the world, ranging from “most stylish” to “most remote.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the Tele Centre Polyvalent in Timbuktu, set up with funding from Unesco and the International Telecommunication Union, won the latter award. The most stylish cafe was the Phlegmatic Dog in Moscow, which retains some of the sleek aura of the early dot-com years, with computer screens built into tables that support night time cocktails, not just coffee. Pascoe now checks her e-mail on a mobile phone. But as she sips a cappuccino at Be the Reds, on a visit for old time’s sake, she said she does not think the rise of mobile Internet access and so-called Wi-Fi networks will sound the death knell for Internet cafes.

“I thought eventually everyone would have a laptop, that this would be just a jumping-off point,” she said. But she had not counted on another factor, she added: “In the early days, this was one of the only places in central London where you could get a decent cup of coffee.”

 

International Herald Tribune
2 September 2004
Author: Eric Pfanner

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