Internet Cafes - a relic of the past or a modern subculture?
So you’ve just finished developing a brand new website for your company - how will you put it in front of your customers? In 1995, @ cafe became one of the first internet cafes in the US, and was the destination for website launch parties in New York. They celebrated the launch of major sites, including DKNY and New Balance to a busy crowd of eager users, with a computer for everyone to visit the new website for themselves. With only 14% of the US population having access to the internet in their own home, an internet cafe was one of the few places people could log on and explore the worldwide web. In 2020, the situation is vastly different, with 90% of the American population having access to the internet in their own homes and spending over 6 and a half hours online every day!
The internet cafe phenomenon confused many people - and was an expensive and difficult operation for its owners to pull off. @ Cafe came about based on a dream of co-founder Glenn McGinnis to bring internet to the masses, making it accessible to all and introducing a social element to its culture in the US. McGinnis had a premonition about how fast and hard the internet was going to hit the world. He’d been inspired by Japanese gaming cafes to create a hub for users and could see the potential of something similar for internet use in America.
In 1995 things were not as glamorous as they are now, the cafe managed with a poorly designed server room that was cooled with buckets of ice that needed replacing every two hours! The founders wanted to create a premium experience for their customers, at a time when slow dialup connections were the norm. They installed a T1 connection in the cafe to ensure a super-fast connection at all times. This connection was traditionally reserved for universities and big businesses and cost @ Cafe USD$9,000 a month!
@ Cafe attracted interest from around the world, bringing tourists from everywhere to visit this internet cafe and be photographed in its iconic setting. People everywhere were shocked by the concept of the internet and the drive of people to visit a location to log on and look around.
This dream was short-lived for the @ Cafe co-founders, with the business closing within the first year of operation. Despite being a successful service and increasingly popular with businesses and investors, the cafe struggled to ever break even. This was a result of the challenging nature of a restaurant venture and the high costs of maintaining the equipment (and their internet bill). McGinnis’ goal was never to become a conglomerate, he wanted to bring the internet into everyday conversation and create a space for the masses to congregate and discuss their ideas in an innovative space.
Internet cafes today
Internet cafes have changed as the internet has, and you may think that they are primitive spaces and have died out. Many internet cafes were forced to close as users started using the services to pirate music and movies, leading to tens of thousands dollars in fines and thousands in legal fees for the owners. These spaces have since been reinvented with the decline in piracy and the need for a strong gaming machine that is affordable with fast internet - this is especially the case in some parts of Asia.
Users are able to sit in an air-conditioned room, in a comfortable chair and play online games with users around the world - for less than a dollar an hour. Even though most users own their own computer at home, the computers at an internet cafe - more commonly referred to as game dens nowadays - are often faster, more souped-up and better equipped for gaming. Some cafes are luxury experiences - you get your own pod with all you can eat snacks and a vast manga library - making it so good that users often don’t leave for days or even at all.
This is something that is almost too good to be true, with almost 61,000 Japanese gamers spending the night in an internet cafe on any given day, with 5,400 living there full time. This new generation of ‘net cafe refugees’ experience severe gaming addiction, and in one case there was a death in Taiwan as a man gamed for 3 days straight.
Where will we see the internet cafe go next?
As the internet and our devices change, so do we. As South-East Asian countries have become globalised, their real estate prices are increasing - Taiwan has seen a 187% increase in index pricing in the last 16 years alone! With the incredibly low margins within an internet cafe environment, it has become increasingly difficult for cafes to survive. Taiwan has seen an increase in claw games, as they require minimum maintenance and have high margins with each transaction - the ideal tenant for a landlord.
Internet cafes may not be gone forever, with industry bodies predicting that VR will begin to be played within an internet cafe environment as users do not need to invest in their own machine to play their favourite games. The social element of an internet cafe is a crucial component that has seen them grow and change as gamers needs do. An internet cafe is a safe space for gamers to spend time with friends and escape to a different world without leaving the comfort of a plush armchair. The other undeniable factor that sees the demand for these types of businesses remain is the speed and quality of the equipment that provides users with a premium experience that they may not be able to afford or maintain themselves.