Back on a brief visit to Chennai I visited the friendly cyber café near my home to find a startling changes that are a hard reality for the owners as the traffic moves over to mobile phones.
It was deserted during peak evening hours and to think just a decade ago we used to wait at times for 15-20 minutes to get hold of a free PC.
The cyber café was our lifeline in my college days. It was a mix of work and fun. You needed to research for your assignments, write the papers, print and bind them, catch a bit of music and videos, chat with your friends winking into those pudgy cameras fixed on top, even exchange mails – all the action was at the café. It could be crowded and 12 PM meant close of business for the owners indulging the night owls willing to plug on over a cuppa of coffee. I used to like it a lot since the crowds would thin out after 9 and it was like a private party then. You got to know the regular crowd and exchanged a bit of pleasantry. Not much though as everyone got on with his own agenda.
The shop itself was a makeover of the older shop that ran a unique service combination of photocopiers and STD / ISD phone calls. Mobile phone took away the phone business and even the copier volumes fell. The owners innovated into other lines that seemed sustainable then – offer computer funda classes to housewives and the elderly, help parents register their kids profile on matrimonial sites, help people download popular and customized song lists, create resumes, held people register on job sites, help them book train and air tickets, help amateur traders play the stock market – anything that could be monetized was easy meat for them.
I just chatted with the boy on the till and he said that mobile telephony had changed things again. The younger lot were so savvy that they really never stepped in unless it was to grab a printout. Even the old lines were not that popular anymore as it seems the families too had got a hang of the tablets and laptops that abound in middle class homes. The students too had moved away and most had their own laptops now. Competition was down as many shops had closed.
Gone are the days when people didn’t think twice about doing online banking and shopping using what after is a pc in the public domain. Privacy and fraud concerns have finally caught on and fueled the aspiration to own their private devices.
Our shop had survived as the owner was running it more out of habit than to meet any target roi. Old timers relied on him along with students and so he continued to indulge them though the profits were down now. He had added some odds and end to the business – retailing prepaid mobile cards, net vouchers, selling mobile and laptop peripherals, and offering gaming consoles. He was even retailing the 5 gallon mineral water cans.It did add a bit of incremental volume.
So life had moved on but people had survived. I wondered what would it be like 5 years down from now – I have feeling that though one can’t predict what would be new avatar of the shop, it would be there as it has been over the past 20 odd years.