Wired over coffee

Le Web Cafe in San Jose is a chat room
where people can actually chat

Published: Feb. 8, 1996

Mercury News Staff Writer

HANN SO, 40, IS ADDING a new dimension to what it means to be wired in San Jose.

Le Web Cafe, which So opened two weeks ago, is apparently San Jose's first coffee shop with high-speed links to the Internet.

The cafe, on South De Anza Boulevard near the Cupertino border, makes one-stop shopping possible for those who want the Internet, a cup of coffee and living, breathing people at the same time.

Similar gathering spots have sprouted around the world but have been slow to take root here because access to the on-line world is so prevalent locally that it lacks the novelty appeal it has in, say, Anchorage, Alaska, or Whitefish, Mont.

''This is not the best market'' for an on-line cafe, says Robert Crowe, a computer consultant whose software is used for an Internet-linked Macintosh terminal at the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company. ''A fairly high percentage of the population here spends a good portion of the day in front of a terminal.''

So, a software engineer, agrees that ''too many people here tend to concentrate too much on technology at work. Then they go home and work on their PCs.'' In an age of chat rooms, he is trying to create a place where people can also talk face to face.

What spurred him to create the business, however, is a belief that ''too many people are afraid of the Internet.''

''I wanted to create a place where they could come and look,'' So says. ''If they want to try, they can.''

Amid the biscotti and croissants, you can safely ease into cyberspace with absolutely no technical training. Just click a mouse and you're on the Net. So's computers are already linked to his home page, which offers viewers access throughout the Net.

A half-hour of Internet at Le Web access costs $5. In a few clicks, you're at the Louvre. Click again and you can check out sports scores at ESPN.

If you bring your own notebook computer, he'll hook you up (with a PC-LAN card) to his high-speed line for $3. If needed, he'll configure the address of your notebook so it's linked to Net.

If you need only an outlet for your own computer and modem, the charge for a telephone line is $2 an hour, a tad more than a 95 cent espresso and an 85-cent biscotti.

So certainly isn't the first to link computing and coffee in the Bay Area.

SF Net, a San Francisco outfit founded in 1991, has coin-operated machines that offer access to the on-line world in 33 cafes in and around San Francisco.

However, So has taken the cybercafe concept a step further. His set-up is faster and allows access to the graphics that can make the Net sizzle. SF Net provides access only to text. Its users are heavily into e-mail.

So provides four 486 PCs for those who want to connect to the Internet via a high-speed (T1) line. The speed is what draws Kibbee Kwong, a customer who has a home computer but prefers Le Web Cafe because of its almost instant access to the Internet.

''This is much better,'' he says. ''You don't have to wait.''

SF Net says its text-only restriction has its advantages.

''Wait until they open the first cybercafe in Utah,'' says Wayne Gregori, SF Net's administrator. ''Wait till kids start downloading pictures of women having sex with dogs.''

SF Net, Gregori says, by not offering graphics, keeps a lot of the ''garbage'' on the Net away from viewers.

To address that concern, So requires teens to provide written proof of parental permission.

Other South Bay coffee bars may add computer terminals, including Mission City Roasting Company in Santa Clara and Red Rock Coffee in Sunnyvale.

The Matisse Cafe in San Jose also is considering the concept, but owner Dennis Fong sees mechanical and operational hurdles.

''We're not going to jump on the bandwagon just because someone thinks it is a sexy idea,'' he says.

Another approach to mixing coffee with computers is being taken by Crowe, the computer consultant who runs Plugged in Computers, a Los Gatos start-up.

He's developing software geared to coffeehouses that want an on-line presence but don't want their employees having to answer computer questions.

''A lot of cafe owners know about coffee, but not about computers,'' Crowe says. ''We provide the expertise.''

The software allows the curious to use an unattended Mac terminal to visit the Net (via a 28.8K-per-second modem) and also write letters, send e-mail and use CD-ROMs.

Crowe is in discussions with potential partners he hopes will install Macs to run his software. A prototype of the system is available to try for $3.95 a half-hour at the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company.

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