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Coffee A La Modem

News: Analysis & Commentary: SOCIETY


I'm well into my third caffe latte before I even think to look up at the clock. Whoops. I'm also into my third hour on the World Wide Web. This is getting to be a pricey Friday night at Cyber Java, a new Internet cafe in Venice, Calif. The guy peering over my shoulder shrugs. "I've seen much worse ways to spend $7.50 an hour," he says.

True enough. It's also true that with a steady supply of joe, I could sit here and surf the Net all night. Cyber Java's six Pentium-powered computers share a direct, T1 Internet link, have big color monitors with videoconferencing capabilities, and are loaded with the necessary navigational software to turn the chaotic Internet into a brightly colored, easy-to-read multimedia experience. The best part? I'm not holed up in some office or crouched over my laptop at home. I'm in an actual cafe, with all the attendant social benefits. Cool music. A friendly, talkative Southern California crowd. And plenty of hot java.

NEWBIE-FRIENDLY. Welcome to another Internet cafe. These venues, unlikely combinations of food and computers, are taking the Net out of the realm of hardcore techies and into the hands of the public--neophytes and all. And since the first of these cafes appeared in San Francisco and Seattle some two years ago, the idea has caught fire. Three such sites have opened in New York since the start of summer, with more on the way. "Coffee and the Internet, what else interests our generation?" asks Rom Agustin, 29, Cyber Java's founder. His place opened its doors in July; he knows of half a dozen others due to open around Los Angeles by Thanksgiving.

Will this craze go the way of the fern bar? Maybe not. "Sushi bars were once a fad, but now a large part of the American population eats sushi," says Glenn McGinnis, 25, a co-founder of @ ("At") Cafe, a Manhattan bar/restaurant with 15 PCs jacked into the Net. He and others say the cafes perform a service by giving people a place to learn about the Net in an unintimidating ambiance.

Still, a business needs to turn a profit. And exactly how to make coffee and the Internet pay is problematic. Cafes and restaurants are notoriously hard to keep afloat anyway. Add the expense of state-of-the-art computers, high-speed dedicated Internet hookups (up to $5,000 a month), and technical support, and it quickly adds up to a bundle.

As Internet cafes struggle to make ends meet, many are turning to consulting, says McGinnis. Companies all want to jump on the Internet bandwagon, but few know where to begin. That's when they approach cafe owners--mostly 20-something and technically savvy--for advice and help in setting up their World Wide Web pages.

By Monday night, I'm back in the East Village at the @ Cafe. There's a decent clutch at the bar, and four or five folks in the back, surfing the Net. Sanae Foujita, in town from Okinawa, Japan, and Manhattan lawyer Philip T. Davies are having an online discussion with someone about, of all things, dating. I've already been to a dozen interesting nooks on the net, from the Small Business Administration's Web site to a former roommate's personal page. Not exactly a wild night, at least not in the East Village sense of the word. But it's far better than a solo trip down the I-way. By Julie Tilsner in Venice, Calif., and New York

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