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A Quick Byte in CyberSpace

A new chapter opens in Sri Lankan cyber-history with the opening of the first ever cybercafe at Union Place. Hopefully, the cafe - to be called The Cyber Cafe (Pvt) Ltd. - will open on the 17th of March with the Minister of Science and Technology, Mr. Bernard Soysa, pressing the first key to launch this venture. But enough of the official stuff, let's get down to the nitty gritty of how the cafe will work, the hardware used, the services offered etc.

The cafe, housed in a nifty building painted with red, yellow, blue and white squares is situated in Union Place near San Remo's and the Cargills Food City. The interior, like the other cybercafe's around the world, is a cross between a cafe and a computer room. There are computers set up all around the room against the walls and in one corner, you get the cafe which has a coffee machine and a soft drinks machine. As far as the cafe part of the operation goes, the people at The Cyber Cafe hope to have many varieties of coffee such as espresso, capuccino etc. as well as short eats for their customers. For lunch, they might go for something a bit more filling like pizzas.

The whole aim of the operation, according to Shamima Jafferjee Esufali - one of the directors of the cafe - is to provide an atmosphere which is friendly and informal. A place where youngsters can hang out and maybe, if they are of a mind, can even surf the web. A place where even your grandmother might like to go once she gets in to the mood of things. As currently teenagers in Sri Lanka have no place to hang out, except the shopping malls, the cybercafe could indeed prove to be a great boon to the younger generation and if they learn to surf the web by just hanging around the place, well that could be an added bonus.

The hardware used at the cafe is the very latest. It is all connected as a network with a server running Windows NT and the workstations running Win '95. In fact, the server is a Pentium 100MHz with 16MB RAM and a 1.2GB hard disk while the workstations have Cyrix 586 75MHz processors and contain 8MB RAM and 850MB hard disks. They've currently got about 6 machines and most of these are fully multimedia capable in order to make the best use of the Internet facilities like Iphone and Real Audio. In case you are wondering, Iphone stands for Internet phone and allows one to talk to another person connected to the Internet as if you were both speaking by phone (and you can talk to anyone anywhere in the world - if they've got Internet connectivity - for a very nominal cost) while Real Audio is a method whereby sound clips could be played over the Internet. Real Audio was recently used by one of the service providers in Sri Lanka recently to post the world cup cricket commentaries on the Net.

The machines used at the cafe are some of the latest and fastest currently available and they probably have been selected to give the user the greatest performance and speed when they roam the Internet. In addition to this, as the connection is a 64 kb (that's kilo bits or thousands of bits, for the uninitiated) leased line, the users of the cafe will have extremely fast access (just consider the fact that a normal connection through a service provider just gets you 14400 bits per second, maximum) to the Net. In fact, I am told that it takes about 1.5 minutes to download 1MB at the cafe (on average) whereas it takes about 10 minutes on a normal Internet connection via a service provider (talk about speed!). This will allow users to use facilities like Iphone and Real Audio at normal speeds instead of having to go through a lot of delays as happens when one has just a 14400 bps connection.

Now, for the software. All the software used for Internet connectivity will obviously be Win '95 compatible as they are running the new Windows on all of their machines and this means that the software will be extremely easy to use for first time users. According to Kevin Koelmeyer - the man in charge of the technical and training aspects at the cafe - they have been looking at several web browsers, mail readers, ftp software etc. and evaluating them on ease of use and he said that they will be selecting the easiest software out of the lot for use in the cafe. They are also thinking of getting Microsoft Internet server which comes with all the tools necessary for surfing the Net such as web browsers, ftp, e-mail, gopher etc.

The cafe will be stocking a library of the latest computer magazines for the habituees of the cafe to go through and will also have a library of the latest CD-ROM games such as Mortal Kombat 3, Hexen, Wing Commander IV, The Dig, Command & Conquer etc. for the gaming enthusiasts out there. As the whole system is networked, this will mean that the people out there who love deathmatching can have a field day at the cafe. Education hasn't been forgotten either and the CD-ROM library will also have the latest encyclopaedias like Microsoft Encarta and Grolier as well as other reference works on CD for those of their customers who are of a more scholarly bent of mind or who want to do some quick research for a class project etc.

The services provided by the cafe will be manifold. They will provide a place for youngsters (and the not so young) to hang out and have a cookie and a cup of coffee, train newbies in using the Net, allow gamers to play their favourite single-player or multi-player games, let people just watch others surfing the Net and gain an understanding about the whole thing, allow experienced surfers to roam the Internet for an hourly fee, let people maintain their own e-mail boxes etc.

There will be two types of Internet access. If you are a casual, drop-in user, you can pay on an hourly basis and just surf the Net and if you want to send e-mail, you can send it under the cafe's general address and receive mail via the same address but if you seek confidentiality for your correspondence, you can pay a yearly fee of Rs. 3500 and get your own e-mail address. Under the latter scheme, you will not be charged anything extra for your e-mail but you will still have to pay for browsing the web.

The people at the cafe also hope to have participatory programs and competitions for its members. One such planned item is to have a deathmatch competition to choose the ultimate deathmatch champion. So, those who plan to be the Doom master or the Hexen hellion or the Descent demon had better grab their weapons and start practicing to be the best of the best and to kill all the rest!

Considering the cybercafe phenomena one cannot but agree that it is indeed a good thing (OK, OK, call me biased). This is bound to get the younger generation more involved in the whole idea of the Internet and the information superhighway and train them from a very young age to be in touch with the latest in information technology. On the other hand, as Shameema pointed out to me, the cybercafes will benefit the service providers themselves because this will give the older people a chance to take a look at the Net on their own terms and to come to grips with it and learn about its capabilities before they go ahead and invest in a connection of their own through one of the service providers. Another advantage to the whole cybercafe scheme is that though the younger generation are the ones at the forefront of the coputer lieterate in Sri Lanka, most of them lack the funds and the knowledge to go surfing on the Net because an Internet connection is prohibitively expensive in Sri Lanka at the moment though the costs are slowly coming down. So, the cybercafe will be a god-sent for these kids to gain access to the Net cheaply or to just see how it is done by watching others. And, who knows, you may even get your grandmother to surf the Net, if you get her to a cybercafe.

Copyright © 2005-2008 Fahim Farook