Is this the end of the internet café?
A DECADE AGO, they were at the cutting edge of cool, a hip high street hang-out for pioneers of the "information super highway" and a magnet for travellers who favoured e-mail over airmail to keep in touch with friends and family.
Internet cafs celebrated their tenth birthday this year. But in the next ten years, experts think they might disappear all together - testament to the breakneck speed of technological advance. Across Scotland, cyber cafs are closing down.
Despite improvements such as broadband access, better coffee and cheaper prices, they are struggling to compete with the number of people who can access the internet and e-mail at work and home. These days, travellers keep in touch by mobile calls or texting.
The world’s first internet caf opened in London in 1994, at a time when most people didn’t know their Google from their Yahoo! Scotland’s first internet caf, Cyberia, on Hanover Street, Edinburgh, appeared just seven months later, in April 1995.
At the time, the man behind the Scottish incarnation, Gavin Nicholson, was bullish about the future. "We are at the beginning of a revolution," he said. "The internet is breaking down international barriers, and internet cafs are a great way to get involved."
And, of course, he was right, but no-one said anything about longevity. Less than six years later, in January 2001, Cyberia had closed down - an early victim of the trend for technology to become a standard feature of many modern households.
Now, as PC ownership and internet access via broadband becomes even more common, other small internet cafs are falling by the wayside. Two in Edinburgh - Th:at Internet Caf in Brougham Place and Web 13 in Bread Street - have shut up shop in recent months, and others across Scotland may well follow. Nicholson - who has made a successful living from the internet, despite the closure of the caf - is not surprised. "In the early days, it was for people to experiment," he says. "But now, people can get access much more freely, whether at home, in a hotel, an airport - wherever, really - and it’s much cheaper. I think we only ever made a profit for a couple of years in total all the while we were in business with the internet caf."
Nicholson has managed to turn those early days as an e-pioneer into a successful spin-off business. He is now the managing director of Realise, an internet solutions company working with large companies such as Standard Life, Bank of Scotland and Scottish & Newcastle. "It was very much the dawn of the internet back then," he says. "It was a novelty to go into an internet caf for those that were interested, and try it out.
"I used to give talks to business people and tell them that within two years they would all be using e-mail and they laughed at me. No-one realised the impact it would have."
Although Nicholson believes the odd internet caf could still provide a service for backpackers, he is not particularly optimistic for their future. "There is a real miniaturisation of the technology now, with the advent of things like BlackBerrys [portable phone-sized personal computers], and I think the internet caf will go the way of the telephone kiosk."
ONE OF THE FACTORS behind the demise of Edinburgh’s first cyber caf was the arrival in town of the EasyInternet caf in Rose Street, part of a chain owned by EasyJet’s founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou. The smaller operators could not compete with the large number of terminals it was offering at cut-price rates. But the Midas touch almost deserted the Greek entrepreneur when he decided to dabble in that market. He once described the move as "the most expensive mistake of my career" and earlier this year announced he was selling the lease of his flagship internet caf in London’s Oxford Street. Speculation followed that a similar fate would befall the Edinburgh branch. However, his plans have since changed and a spokesman for EasyGroup said there were no plans to close the Oxford Street outlet or the Edinburgh one, although there has been a reduction in opening hours.
But as times change, the EasyGroup realises that the nature of this part of their business will have to change. The cafs will now become Easy.com centres, showcasing the full range of companies and services on offer. The company is adamant it can make them work, but advances in technology threaten a different outcome.
Cities such as Edinburgh now boast a large number of outdoor "hotspots", where traditional BT phone boxes have been transformed into access points for wireless internet use. There are similar so-called "openzones" at some hotels, where laptops or handheld computers can now gain internet access at broadband speeds from anywhere within a 100 metre radius.
Bill Buchanan, from the school of computing at Napier University in Edinburgh, likens the early popularity of internet cafs to renting out VHS and DVD machines following their initial appearance on the high street. "People rented them at first because of the price, but now they’re so cheap you might as well buy one," he says. "It’s the same with internet access."
He is not surprised that in the year of its tenth birthday, the standard high street internet caf is, essentially, a thing of the past. "Things become redundant so quickly now because of the technology. It has changed so quickly within ten years - but that’s what makes it exciting."
Buchanan believes that backpackers and travellers will increasingly use wireless technology to stay in touch, although internet cafs may have a minor role by providing leading-edge technology such as video-streaming. "This can allow you to watch, say, a soccer match from a really remote or obscure place, which you would not be able to do from a home PC," he said.
HOWEVER, SOME OF the old-school internet providers are still in business. The Tinsley Lockhart Internet Centre in Edinburgh provides internet access, faxing and other business services and can provide a coffee for customers - although it doesn’t advertise that fact. "We rely on people who don’t have a landline or a computer - travellers or those on a low wage," says the centre’s John Lockhart. "And we charge low rates like 5p for 15 minutes. But it’s extremely competitive now."
He admits the way forward is to "value add" - offering services such as music downloading, and perhaps even the odd latt or espresso, as opposed to a cup of instant. And he remains optimistic. "There are possibilities to expand," he insists.
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