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Borrowed Time

The computer-less crowd doesn't have to own to be on-line. Kids to executives can now tap into O.C. store displays and cyber cafes.

March 14, 1997|SUSAN HOWLETT and SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a Norman Rockwell painting in a computer-age frame. With the grace of a traffic cop, the freckle-faced youngster maneuvers a polite conversation from the helm of the Sony PlayStation.

"No, I don't have it at home . . . too expensive," says Jonathan Radin, 10, of Huntington Beach about the video system bolted to the counter in the children's department at Sears in Westminster Mall. "I come here to play because it's really fun.

Across the county in another mall, 41-year-old David Parker sits comfortably behind a rented video screen in a so-called "cyber cafe." Logged onto the Internet, the Irvine businessman calls his spot there a "communications post" between client meetings.

From the Nintendo-less kids to the executive in need of an e-mail address, high-tech hunger feeds into the thriving new concept of "ownership optional" electronics on demand.

Free, or at an hourly rate, it's technology for the computer non-owner--a trend fueled by those searching for a way to belong in the computer age.

Computer time can be borrowed in computer stores and in shopping malls, and it can be rented by the hour in cafes and copy shops. For adults, putting your hands on the latest technology usually means getting on the Internet; for kids, it's just as likely to mean claiming a spot in front of the latest Nintendo or Sony video game system.

According to a recent Times Technology Poll, computer ownership and usage is booming in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Still, plenty of people don't own computers--and many who do nevertheless have equipment that has become outdated as technology speeds forward.

The poll found that a little more than half of households don't have a computer; 80% don't have a modem--the essential link to the Internet; and 90% of respondents had never used a chat room.

But the curiosity is there. Three-fourths of poll respondents said they feel it's important to keep pace in the computer age, although less than half think they are managing to do so. What the heck, they ask, do www.com and http and all those back slashes mean anyway?

"Every major corporation flashes their Web site, and it's made people curious," says Steve Sawyer of Hawaii-based Global Computing. "Curiosity draws a lot of people into cyber cafes."

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"I'm here just about every day," says Parker, seated at a well-worn dinette set within Discordia CyberCafe in Costa Mesa. "This way of doing business may be ahead of its time, but it won't be far off when it's the norm."

According to Internet experts, Parker's way of doing business is already the norm for many like him without computers at home.

For a going rate of about $6-per-hour, they're buying time in cyber cafes, locations designed to take the edge off technology with a cup of coffee, a terminal and waiters who double as computer nerds.

"They are all over the world; I did the research," says Soulie Elkarake, owner of Al Cappuccino's in Fullerton, one of Orange County's first cyber cafes. "I don't know when it's going to stop."

There are more than 80 cyber cafes in the nation, "and the list is growing," says Sawyer, 44, whose company compiles an updated list of the locations. France, Germany, South Africa, British Columbia and Japan are also using the concept.

The numbers are uncertain, he says, because coffee houses with Internet access sprout up so quickly.

"No one's really sure exactly how many there are out there, but it's definitely hot right now," he says.

Owners of these businesses say their customers vary--there is no one profile of a cyber-cafe patron.

"We have one lady who comes in here . . . she's a huge Michael Jackson fan," says Todd Daniels, 26, co-owner of Discordia. "She subscribes to all sorts of newsletters and fan clubs and comes in to read them all."

At Al Cappuccino's, Elkarake says many of his terminal users are students from nearby Cal State Fullerton.

"I have 85 accounts here, and about 60% are students," he says. "There are also several customers who come in here to set up resumes to find jobs, and people coming from the convention center who want to check their e-mail."

Down the street at Kinko's, there are computers for hire--$12 an hour--but that doesn't include Internet access.

Most cyber cafes offer instant e-mail addresses and accounts where customers can log-on at an hourly rate. They also offer high-speed connections several times faster than those available for home use, allowing users to get into chat rooms and Web pages and use pockets of Internet information.

Some cafes also offer computer classes, research services and help to design your own Web site.

"About 90% of our customers don't have computers at home," says Daniels of the Discordia clientele.

There are many reasons for that--everything from lack of space and financial means to sheer intimidation.

"A lot of people figure they can get in here easily, and if you compare $6 with the expense of a $3,000 computer, it's definitely worth it," Daniels says.

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