Cybersmith's Demise Reflects Reality

PALO ALTO, Calif. - The storefront windows are dark. Inside are hollow computer consoles, standing like dead R2D2s of a past era. Ethernet cables dangle from exposed rafters like hangman's ropes.

Cybersmith, an Internet cafe in the teeming heart of Silicon Valley, is no more.

University Avenue in Palo Alto still thrives with cafes, restaurants, bookstores and retail outlets. But it could not support a bleeding-edge game-and-Internet access hangout.

Why? The reasons are instructive in an age where everything new and cyber is assumed to be golden.

When the cafe opened in fall 1996, the Boston-based chain had high hopes for a nationwide franchise. Already there was talk about cafes in Bellevue, Kirkland and on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Combining a GenX menu of hip cuisine, interactive game machines and fast Web access via big-screen monitors, Cybersmith seemed a sure bet to become a new style of Hard Rock Cafe.

For a while it worked. Each time I was in the valley, I checked in on the place. It was usually full of friendly, trendy types talking animatedly over plates of pasta or world wraps.

Nonetheless, I was not surprised to see its vacant facade last week. You still can find Internet cafes around, including the Speakeasy in Seattle's Belltown. But they tend to be a lot more cafe than Internet, more for hanging out than logging on. The Internet part has never caught on, as once predicted.

For one thing, Net access, through increasingly available DSL and cable modems, has gotten considerably faster outside the office than when Internet cafes first were introduced. Then again, computers, especially portable ones, have gotten much cheaper in the past three or four years. No need for an online console at your cafe table - you can bring your own.

This point especially has been driven home in the Bay Area. There are "laptop cafes" that would qualify as Internet cafes if they simply offered Ethernet at each table.

At classic latte-and-hardwood cafes in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Marin County, you find computers at almost every table. Many are plugged into a wall outlet, their users busily typing away. The same thing is true in Seattle of a place like Elliott Bay Book Co.'s cafe or the Honey Bear in Wallingford.

Two points get driven home when I see cafes teeming with PC users. First, nearly all are sitting alone. If they have a companion, he or she is reading or working on another PC - although two-laptop tables still seem a rarity.

And that's a significant issue. You can only interact with one thing at a time. If it's a computer, it means you're isolated from the people around you.

Computing, whether working a spreadsheet or surfing the Web, is an individual pursuit. Cybersmith was configured so groups of folks could gather around computer terminals and react to what was going on via the screen.

Trying to make the Web a group experience is like having a bartender channel-flipping while everyone is trying to watch the Super Bowl. The same principle thwarts the vision of interactive movies (another relic consigned to the digital boneyard) or the family room featuring "Internet TV" or WebTV.

Cybersmith also was built partly on the vision of the Net PC - the belief that the Internet so neutralized the need for a personal computer that everyone would go around logging on from multiple Net-connected kiosks and terminals in airports, hotels, restaurants, cafes, what have you.

It was a nice try, but the fact is most people, especially Americans, like their PCs. We want instant access to our own data. Until the Internet becomes truly ubiquitous, and a lot faster and more secure, PCs are going to be the device of choice for interacting digitally.

It's still nice to find an Internet cafe in a tucked-away place on the road, where you can log on and do e-mail. The Internet cafe is not really dead.

But even Speakeasy bills itself as a jazz lounge, art gallery and theater in addition to its cafe persona. Being a great Internet cafe means foremost being a great cafe.