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The world of cyber cafes         

It has created an entirely new culture allowing people instant access to communicate

Sep 03 - 09, 2001

Internet, unarguably, has revolutionised the way of human interaction be it personal, commercial, trade, or otherwise. It has left no facet of life untouched and has abolished all barriers of time and space. It has created a new breed of converts the numbers of which are increasing exponentially by each passing day. Refusal to adapt this all-encompassing technology means alienation, marginalisation, and bleak job prospects in a world incessantly becoming IT savvy by every passing minute.

It has also created an entirely new culture allowing people instant access to communicate across the world at the speed of light. The revolution has pushed people, irrespective of their ages, to at least have a hands-on functional knowledge of the personal computer and the www- World Wide Web- or the Internet. Being deprived of this functional knowledge of PC, and for that matter Internet, is like being illiterate in the contemporary world even if otherwise educated.

The transformation has also touched the lives of the people in the developing countries like Pakistan. This article highlights the efforts made by the people to be PC and Internet functional. It is about exorcising the fear of the keyboard and the mouse, which is just as necessary a prerequisite as getting rid of the fear of water for one who wants to learn swimming.

Perhaps this explains the mushrooming of cyber cafes in Karachi, and for that matter across the urban centers nationwide. The phenomenon seems to make all the sense in a country reeling from diminishing purchasing power restricting PC penetration despite an otherwise great potential. But that's only one of the many as discussed later.

Cyber cafe are perhaps the only affordable places in the town which stay open whole Saturday night and till 2 am on the weekdays, at least the majority of them. Hundreds of thousands of people in Karachi alone, most of them students but not barring all age groups, frequent these cyber cafes. Many of them do it as a routine. Primarily people use cyber cafes for any of the two main reasons; having no PC of their own or for the purpose of privacy not available at home despite having a PC. The purpose of visit differs from individual to individual: Most of them are entirely dependent on these cyber cafes to send or receive free e-mails thanks to Yahoo, the world's most recognized portal. Or Microsoft's MSN. Cyber cafes are also frequented by people who want to surf the web for information, news, entertainment, events and the last but least the all too popular pasttime- chatting.

Socio-economic impact

People are spending hours on the Internet at these cafes and in turn having the hands-on functional knowledge which though otherwise available comes with a cost which few can afford. In short, they may be seen as a catalyst for the emergence of the IT culture, a top priority of the present government. So just how many cyber cafes are there in Karachi? Well, nobody knows for sure but one thing is obvious: they have mushroomed in all parts of the city including even the low-income localities.

The mushrooming of cyber cafes, and their continuous multiplication, indicate many things. Number one, there has been a massive increase in the number of people who want, and need, to be on line for a variety of reasons without having a PC of their own for a number of reasons, the top being finance. And number two, the increasing demand provides a unique opportunity offering attractive returns for small and medium entrepreneurs.

While the first cyber cafes in Karachi were opened in the posh localities of the area, their counterparts today are mostly located in middle and low-income areas for an obvious reason: The majority of populace can not afford to buy their own PCs and yet they yearn to be online.

PAGE visited many cyber cafes and found out that though hourly charges differ anywhere from Rs 20-30 for the first hour and proportionately less for each succeeding one from cafe to cafe depending on the locality, the "personality" of each differs from the rest. Cafes owned and run by educated persons, particularly having an IT background, are more in tune with the quality of Internet connectivity and the atmosphere. They are also better able to assist the rookie users and help make their visit a pleasant one.

Syed Ali Hussain, who turned his garment shop in to a six-cabin cyber cafe some six months ago in Buffer Zone, a middle income locality, is happy that he switched over. Syed who did his MBA from Southeastern University, London campus, said that the switchover cost him around Rs 300,000 including renovation, furniture, individual cubicles, the PCs and the air-conditioner. Syed is making an average of Rs 1,600 each day and is happy that he decided to make change.

His cafe is fully occupied at times with people waiting to get a seat, particularly in the night, and so is the situation at other cafes in the locality which charges relatively less. It is not uncommon to see a girl, or a group of them, visit the cafe.

So what does the growing popularity of cyber cafes indicate? Among other things it indicate that unlike developed countries with high PC penetration, the demand for cyber cafes would grow for the two main reasons mentioned above. The demand for hands-on experience, like the over-the-counter-medicine, would keep fueling cyber cafes growth at least for the next few years.