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CYBERCULTURE

Netting the Mainstream

Web on a Cart Draws Nontechie Mall Shoppers

December 23, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To Howard Lefkowitz, nothing says low tech like a shopping mall. So when he decided to sell Internet access to nontechies like himself, he went to Topanga Plaza.

There, the former top executive of TV's Home Shopping Network set up a cart with special telephone lines and fancy computers and hung a sign: Internet in a Mall. Curious shoppers were treated to free tours of the global computer network, including the colorful World Wide Web. Many left with accounts for Internet access that they could use on their home computers.

That was in November 1995. Today, there are 68 Internet in a Mall locations, including carts as far away as Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas. And unlike competing Internet service providers such as Netcom On-Line Communications and EarthLink Network, Internet in a Mall caters to people not quite on the cutting edge.

People like Tom Pottage. The 35-year-old Sunland sculptor, who was recently found to have cancer, decided last week to get on the Internet so that he could find support groups for cancer patients. When asked why he chose Internet in a Mall over other access companies, he replied: "I thought this was the Internet."

To help sort out the difference between the Internet and the companies that hook people up to it, Internet in a Mall staffers at each location offer classes every Monday night to go over the basics, such as sending electronic mail, joining an online chat room and clicking on the words in bold type that represent hyperlinks between the many millions of "pages" on the Web. In addition to the classes, staffers are on hand during all normal shopping hours to answer questions.

Such user-friendly touches have won Tarzana-based Internet in a Mall tens of thousands of subscribers, Lefkowitz asserts, and that number is growing about 45% a month.

Lefkowitz, the company's sole owner, decided to set up shop in the carts that dot the common areas of shopping malls so that already intimidated technophobes wouldn't have to step inside an unfamiliar store. Employees report that would-be subscribers often hover 10 feet away for a while before summoning the courage to try out a machine and ask a question.

"A lot of people are nervous about this stuff," Lefkowitz said. "They don't understand it and they have nowhere to go with their fears and anxieties. We put a face on the technology."

That approach worked for Art Artonian, a 49-year-old auto mechanic in Glendale who became an Internet in a Mall member this month.

"I've never met anyone from America Online," he said.

Although the company philosophy is to bring the Internet to the masses, the concept won't work in all malls. Each cart requires at least a couple of ISDN lines, and some locations sport super-fast T-1 connections. But that means digging up the shopping mall floor, which mall operators are often reluctant to do.

But the ones that have say they are happy with their high-tech tenant.

"This is a way to bring some new technology to people that haven't got a clue about the Internet," said Liz Schulman, who helped Lefkowitz set up his first cart when she was a manager for Westfield Corp., which operates Topanga Plaza. "It is in a sense a retail item you can sell, but it's also creating a service by educating the public."

*aren Kaplan covers technology and telecommunications. She can be reached via e-mail at karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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