GETTING A TASTE OF CYBERSPACE;NEW YORK'S TRENDY INTERNET CAFES CATER TO THE CAPPUCCINO CROWD

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Somewhere north of Penn Station, my cabbie offered me his copy of Wired. Our chat had taken a turn from local politics to local area networks.

"You remind me of Dorothy Parker with your opinions on everything," he said, thrusting the neon techno title through the partition between us.

We moved back into traffic, and he spoke to me gravely. "You should go to an Internet cafe and make your own home page, get your ideas out there online."

I supposed an "Internet cafe" referred to one of New York's new computer diners, where I could spend $10 an hour to read e-mail from my buddies in grad school or do research while downing espresso and sushi.

Between April and July, at least five New York locations have installed full Internet access, combining cozy counter service, hip attitude and cyberspace.

Legend has it that SFNet, a 1991 movement to bring computing to average San Franciscans, birthed the whole trend. SFNet was launched by a Bay area couple as a bulletin board system and became a network of 20 coin-op computers providing access to e-mail and online services.

Some 60 full-service Internet cafes operate worldwide, according to a Cyber Cafe Guide on Prodigy. In the Big Apple, @Cafe, Cyber Cafe, Heroic Sandwich, Internet Cafe and one of the four local News Bar franchises have joined the act.

Several, such as @Cafe, have liquor licenses, full kitchens and gimmicks like CU-SeeMe hookups allowing a user to see and hear chat partners in real time. Some, like News Bar and the Coffee Bar Emporium in Tel Aviv, offer a single machine as a convenience.

Cafe names are as diverse as their services and clientele. Canada has Eek-a-Geek and CyberPerk, while in the U.K. multiple Cyberia locations and the Charlotte's Web Cafe serve the wired-minded. Austria has Das Computerhaus Cafe; France, Le Web; and Belgium, Internet Yourself.

So there I was, a few weeks later, standing on St. Mark's Place among New York University students and nose ring vendors outside the @Cafe, where their slogan is "Eat, drink, 'net."

I appeared at lunchtime and found myself jockeying with fellow journalists from a Japanese camera crew and ABC News to get at the centrally located CU-SeeMe machine.

I logged on to the machine, and, while standing in front of a plum-size movable computer camera, made a connection to a Cornell University server where several men in their 20s could now, if they so clicked and tinkered, see me.

Video windows featuring Darryl, Cornholio, Rob@yale and a character named Jesus who kept rotating his CU-SeeMe cam and speaking in tongues appeared before me.

Crusty Darryl, 24, a library employee at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me over our connection he was "a media whore" who avoided his local Internet cafe. "Yeah," he said with a snicker. "I'll go get some cyber fries with cheese there."

A wide-eyed mother of two from Scarsdale, N.Y., sipping tea in the comfortable room behind the bar, said she wouldn't let her teens use the Internet at home. "I don't want pornography in my house, or for perverts to write my kids," she said. "But this is great-the Internet, with tea and crumpets."

"This has a strong chance of success because we have a variety of revenue streams that strongly reinforce each other, like e-mail account rentals and browsing," said Nick Barnes, co-owner of the cafe.

A half-mile away, below Houston Street, I found "SoHo's first Internet cafe," the Cyber Cafe, on a block of eclectic furniture stores and antique dealers. Bruce, a lanky Oxford third-year computer whiz/waiter, gave me a basic lesson on one of the machines, which line the perimeter of the sunny corner facility.

"Most people start with supervised browsing," he said, as he parted the curtains to cyberspace through a link at Imperial College in the U.K. I used Yahoo's search engine to learn that my alma mater's student paper was now online, that rent on a one-bedroom apartment in my hometown was affordable and that sites for upcoming Grateful Dead concerts looked safe on a downloaded photo.

He showed me a site at Cambridge University where a 24-hour camera provides pictures of a coffee maker (http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee/coffee.html). "The people who work in the library here are lazy, see," he said, "and they like to look online to see if there's any coffee in the pot before they get up to pour more."

Some media watchers are irked at the cafe trend, though, and say it reflects a scheme to enable entrepreneurial wallets.

Jonathon Steuer, a Stanford MBA who helped start up Wired and HotWired, said he takes the cafes seriously but has mixed feelings about those he's seen to date. After leaving the Wired arena, he launched Cyborganic, a Web site to bolster the electronic coffee cafe community (http://www.cyborganic.com). He's also considering opening his own cyber "hangout."

"I'm waiting for the right time," he said of his future business. "I think it's excellent that these businesses are getting stuff out there, that they're building physical spaces that give people access to the Internet. But I guess you could tell the chef, `it's not cooked yet."'

Others are critical of the long-term viability of cyber cafes.

"At best, these new venues will be a two-to-three-year phenomenon that exists only while PC users without Internet connections exist," a recent Forrester Research report stated. Despite the criticism, numbers reveal that cyber cafes are going strong.

"It's important in this business to move swiftly, to differentiate yourself and develop brand equity," said Evan Galbraith, co-owner and business manager of Cyber Cafe.

Sounds like Cybermarketing 101 to me.

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