copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
The first internet cafe's I heard about were highly touted businesses in the United States in the mid 1990's. Their concept was simple, give those people lacking their own computer or connection to the internet someplace nice to visit and dive into the internet world. For a pleasant addition the cafe would sell snacks and drinks, pumping the place with caffeine and possibly inducing more time on-line.
With the rapid popularity of the internet and world wide web, most businesses got on-line, and many people wired their home PCs to a spare phone line and connect from the privacy of the laundry room, garage, or family playroom. Though I don't have the statistics to confirm it, I think the utility of Internet Cafe's in the States is diminished by the these other ways of getting on-line.
But out on the backpacker road, and throughout the emerging countries of Asia, the internet cafe is living large. The level of PC access in the poorer nations I've visited is extremely low, so the need for public places with computers is relatively high. And because most of the backpacker set come from Western countries, they have friends or family that are wired back home, and the internet cafe is a cheap, efficient way to contact them, and of course, ask for more money.
Money is the driving factor behind the opening of thousands of net cafes, but I think most of the entrepreneurs who start up do not complete an exhaustive business plan.
There is a beginning investment in equipment: a PC, some software, and modem, and continual costs of telephone, connection service fees, and staffing. As a cafe operator you have to deal with the ever-present lack of knowledge amongst the customers, many of whom have never even operated a PC before. The amount of frustration I've seen the staff go through is immense, even when the difficulties, like when the net slows down to a crawl for no reason, has nothing to do the the cafe's equipment and is completely out of their control. The customers still complain.
Nevertheless, new storefronts open every day. In the popular backpacker hangout of Khao San Road in Bangkok I counted fourteen shops offering e-mail services. In Bali, the town of Ubud, a small arts community, has had six operations start since November of 1997. One expects to find net cafe's in big cities, and I worked in Auckland, Sydney, Beijing, Saigon, and Hanoi at commercial operations.
But there are other places that surprise you. I found single-terminal access in a fish shop in Phuket Thailand. A local kid had simply stretched a telephone line from his apartment through the front door of the local restaurant and set up his PC on one of the tables. For three bucks an hour you could connect to the net, with the screen commands all in Thai. Thrifty tailors in Hoi An Vietnam have set up a terminal or two in their shops where you can have a fitting session for a new suit, and then surf the web or e-mail your girlfriend while you wait for them to sew it together, in about three hours.
Sometimes finding an internet cafe is impossible, but you can sometimes find a hard-core technologist who will let you their personal machines. My friend Christoper Pearce got wired on a tiny, unelectrified island off Behol in the Philippines. The local net head had his own generator and his modem connected to a cell phone. Pearce sent his first updated from the road. Fifteen recipients were glad to know he was still alive.
If the percentage of homes and businesses gain access to the internet
in the emerging nations like they have in the United States and Europe
the net cafe boom will die a slow death. One of my favorite cafes in Bangkok,
where I put up an entire web site over five weeks, perished while I was
away in Vietnam. When I went to work there it was empty. No problem, the
former owner dragged me up the street to his friend and plopped me in front
of a squeaky-clean new PC. When I asked how long he'd been open he replied,