- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

Jack Braddock walks down the street for coffee, conversation and a little stock market trading. But the 64-year-old Arlington, Va., man is not stopping at either the bank or the broker but at the MouseTrap Internet Cafe on Wilson Boulevard.

"I am retired but fairly active in the stock market, and I have a sister in Peru," Mr. Braddock says. "Even though I have a computer and Internet connection at home, the cafe's connection is much faster. So I find myself coming down to conduct a little business, send e-mails to my sister and to socialize with other like-minded people that are in the cafe."

Cybercafes find clients of all ages and lifestyles stopping by for gourmet coffee, pastry and access to the information superhighway. They are drawn to the cafes for a variety of reasons to surf the World Wide Web, chat on line with friends and family, conduct business and keep pace with world news. In some areas of the world, people seek out Internet cafes because news may be censored or because it's too expensive for them to maintain a home connection.

In and around Washington, three full-fledged cybercafes and a bookstore with an Internet connection fill the needs of customers with a yen to go on line. Patrons here run the gamut, from tourists who want to connect to family members or check business e-mails to foreign students new to the Unites States who find that their systems are not compatible but need to get on line right away.

Others, like Mr. Braddock, have computers at home but seek out the cafes for human companionship, faster Internet connections and other business services.

"The MouseTrap offers faxing services, so I am down here regularly in order to take care of that business need," Mr. Braddock says.

"But I also like this cafe because I like the owner, Peter, who is extremely tech-knowledgeable and helpful. He seems to have the answers to questions and problems, even with my home computer. It's fun to come down here."

"Peter" is the Dublin-born Peter Harrison, who with co-owner Michael Lee opened the MouseTrap last July. With a casual business feel, the place combines work areas and lounging areas, giving customers the ability to focus on their computer work or enjoy the company of others sitting at a small table or in stuffed chairs. A favored spot to sit and sip is at the window bar, where the sun streams in to illuminate thoughts of cyberhighways and streaming videos.

Who would have thought, back in the 1960s when the Internet was first developed, that it would lead in the 21st century to the cybercoffeehouse, with people lounging in the sun as they chat with friends and do business around the world?

The phenomenon known as the cybercafe exists thanks in part to the explosion of the Internet: Last year 400 million users plugged in worldwide. The earliest version of the Internet was developed in 1958 for use by the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Agency. It was during the early 1960s that MIT students Leonard Kleinrock, J.C.R. Licklider and Welden Clark began envisioning what Mr. Licklider liked to call a "galactic network."

Mr. Licklider and Mr. Clark were the first to speculate on the social implications of this network. Mr. Kleinrock wrote his doctoral thesis on the theory of "packet switching," or the movement of large amounts of information over communication networks.

These men are the pioneers who envisioned a global web of interconnected computers from which any user could quickly find information from any electronic storehouse, or site.

The Internet changed in 1990, when the English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web while he was working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. At the outset, the Web was used for instant communication and information sharing among physicists working all over the world. Their invention, a software program titled Mosaic, allowed users to send and view text and graphic information.

The next step, or so it seems, was cyberchat and coffee. In the last five years, the number of cybercafes has grown from fewer than 100 worldwide to more than 15,000.

From Taipei, Taiwan, to Toledo, Ohio, cybercafes offer low-cost connections to the world, putting information, entertainment and even love at one's fingertips. Adding coffee and danishes seems to create a meeting place for people both virtually and physically.

In the United States, people use the cybercafes to conduct personal business when they do not want to use office equipment. For those without Internet connections, this is the chance to get on line to their neighborhoods and the world.

"It is hard to determine the exact number of cybercafes worldwide, but I would guess the number to be between 15,000 and 25,000," says Ernst Larsen, publisher of the Internet Cafe Guide book and Web site (www.netcafeguide.com).

"In underdeveloped countries, cafes are often the only chance people have to know the Internet. Around the world, the cafes make it difficult to control media information, as on the Net the boundaries are harder to defend, making it very difficult for authorities to hold back information from the people."

In the Washington area, cybercafes offer a combination of PC and Macintosh computers, business and graphic software programs and high-speed connections through either a leased T1 line or a Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, connection to the Internet.

Both of these enhanced-speed connections allow users to gain access to information at rates many times faster than possible through the 56K modem standard in most homes.

Those high-speed connections may be the cybercafes' biggest draw, because T1 lines are expensive, and the installation of affordable DSL service is still unavailable in many areas.

As important as the connection speed and computer availability, cybercafes also provide comfortable environments. The ambience ranges from the open work-station feel of the MouseTrap to the corner-cafe atmosphere of the Atomic Grounds (also on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington), to the comfy-living-room surroundings of CyberStop Cafe on 17th Street NW in the District.

Near the heart of the District of Columbia, CyberStop (www.cyberstopcafe.com) is the Washington area's oldest cybercafe. Opened in December 1998, CyberStop is where many tourists head when they reach the capital, dropping by to send a message home that they have arrived safely or to find out where to go in the city.

"We have visitors from all over the city and the world, which was represented in a foreign currency collection we had started," says Michel Dumas, a cafe spokesman. "I can say that all of us have increased our knowledge of world geography working here."

CyberStop features the work of local artists and invites poetry readers and comedy troupes to stop by to provide a little live entertainment. Because live entertainment is sporadic, it is best to call ahead of time to see if, and when, the next group is scheduled to appear.

Featuring a smoke-free upstairs environment with four computer stations, the two-story CyberStop has interspersed the eight computer stations with coffee tables and sofas to make comfortable seating groups arranged to promote socializing among customers. Upstairs a space-inspired wall mural sets a futuristic tone, while sculptures of planets hang above computer stations.

Patrons can use one of eight Pentium II computers equipped with Windows 98 or an Apple iMac. The cafe's computers each have Microsoft Office, Netscape, Internet Explorer and Adobe Photoshop 5.5 already loaded for customer use, as well as a scanner they can use to capture photos or text into computer documents.

Cafe visitors include students from George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Howard universities, as well as local business people who stop by for a bit of live and virtual chatting. The cafe seats between 25 and 200 people during any one day, Mr. Dumas says.

• • •

The food and environment of Washington landmark Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe & Grill on Connecticut Avenue NW (www.kramers.com) bring international tourists in to sample American foods such as authentic Eastern Shore crab cakes or fettuccini New Orleans and to check their e-mail at the free Internet connection at the cafe's bar.

"We look on it as akin to offering a public telephone, in that it generates goodwill for our customers, many of which are foreign tourists who come to the cafe because of its international reputation as a Washington tourist destination," says Michael Sean Winters, the cafe's manager.

While Kramerbooks has just that one Internet connection, it is constantly busy.

Not only do tourists wait to check their e-mail, but students from George Washington and American universities can often be found at the cafe's bar working away into the night, often because of computer problems they may be experiencing at home.

• • •

At Arlington's Atomic Grounds Coffeehouse (www.atomic-grounds.com) on Wilson Boulevard, the coffee is served by owner Avi Charnas. Mr. Charnas worked as an electrical engineer in his native Ukraine, moving to Israel and the United Kingdom before coming to the United States in 1986.

"A knowledge of computers and my interest in people combined to make this business perfect for me and my partner, Ellen Rider," Mr. Charnas says. "I enjoy seeing people come in from all over the world, and I like to help people solve their computer dilemmas, helping them to find their way around the Internet or even how to fix a problem they may be experiencing at home."

This neighborhood cafe features four PC computer stations with DSL Internet connections that, along with Mr. Charnas' computer knowledge, keep his customers surfing through cyberspace at top speed.

Mr. Charnas is not the only immigrant working at the Atomic Grounds. Amine Benhayoun of Morocco has been stopping by the cafe over the last year, helping out behind the counter and using the computer connection.

Mr. Behnhayoun recently married a woman he met on line.

While stories of love found on line are not uncommon, what makes this story unique is that the "cyber road" took Amine to a woman named Maha from his native country.

"I was in a chat room and we began to talk, and I learned that she lived in Morocco, where I grew up," Mr. Benhayoun says. "It is really pretty amazing that we met on line, but once we did I knew, even though I had never seen her face to face, that she was the one for me."

After seven months of chatting, sharing pictures and getting to know each other via the Internet, the prospective bride came to the United States with her father to meet Mr. Behnhayoun, who worked hard to prove his intentions were honorable and that he could provide for this woman so far from home even though their meeting had been somewhat unconventional.

"At first it was very difficult trying to explain to our parents that we wanted to be married, even though we have never met," says Mr. Benhayoun, 24. "Luckily my father was able to go to her father, and the families met, and this made it somewhat easier."

The newlyweds hope to someday return to their native Morocco for a ceremony with both families.

• • •

Stopping at the Atomic Grounds, of course, means we can drop by again at the MouseTrap just down the street. The MouseTrap features eight PCs with DSL connections to the Internet and software for all business needs, from word processing to spread sheets and graphics, as well as fax and scanner machines.

Mr. Harrison and Mr. Lee, the co-owners, also operate .JPM Group Inc. (www.jpmgroup.com), a Web site development company. But Mr. Harrison says he enjoys watching customers come into the coffeehouse to search for new jobs or to research starting their own business.

"A few of our first customers were job seekers that found work using the computers here to connect to the many job Web sites," Mr. Harrison says. "We also have people coming in to do a little telecommuting, and for many who work from their home, they come in to get a break from being alone, to socialize and take a break."

Mr. Harrison says a tour director from Australia often brings her groups to the cafe, by the busload, in order to check their e-mail and send messages home.

"When I compare working for a company to this, I say this is the next best thing to renting deck chairs on the beach," Mr. Harrison says. "I think the need for cafes will increase as more transactions go on line, like being able to retrieve forms from government agencies.

"The cafes take away the burden of having to own a computer and give the person with a home office a place to go for diversion and human contact."

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