Network: 'Who'd put a computer in a pub?'

If the Net is going to catch on, it needs to convince the average consumer. Has it succeeded? Andrew North went to Essex to find out

"We've dealt with decimalisation and that was a problem," said a smartly dressed woman walking down Arcade Place in Romford town centre. Well, they do say the British are a conservative bunch. I had asked her if she had heard of the Internet and whether she thought it was going to become a feature of the average British household.

Yes, she continued, she had heard of it and knew it was all about computers and communications, but "to be quite honest, I'm just not interested. I'm almost 71, why do I need to start getting involved with Internet?"

Many people believe the Net is starting to penetrate the mainstream and is becoming something the average consumer wants for their home. If so, there should be some signs of it happening in the homeland of that bell- wether guide to popular opinion - Essex man. If Essex man wants the Net, then everyone does. And where better to test this than in the Essex town of Romford, which has had its very own Net cafe since July last year?

Loitering in the town's main shopping street during a weekday lunchtime, I found 20 people willing to talk. Ten had heard of the Net, but none of them had ventured into the Global Net Cafe to try it out for themselves. One 37-year-old woman had used the World Wide Web during an evening course and thought it was "crap".

Inside the cafe itself, which is a bar as well as a daytime cafe, two regulars in their forties having an afternoon pint said they had no idea what the five computer terminals in the far corner were for. "What's the point of having computers in a pub?" said one, after I had explained that they were for accessing the Net.

It is hardly a surprising conclusion, but the Net has a long way to go before it wins over Essex man.

Except among the younger generation. Two local college students and a solicitor, all aged under 30, eagerly took up on the offer of a free session of cybersurfing. Ian Rogers, the Global Net Cafe's Internet supervisor, acted as their guide. What did they think of their first dabble on the Net, and would they want to have it at home?

CONSIDERING THIS SERIOUSLY ...

Liz Maidment, 24, is a trainee solicitor with a Romford law firm.

"I thought the Internet was full of nerdy people really," said Liz as she settled down in front of the screen, with her friend Erica looking over her shoulder. "I'm quite sceptical because I think it's sad that people communicate like this, rather than talking to each other face to face."

"I don't use a computer at work," Liz said. "I don't sully my hands with one." She was telling the truth. "I'm lost in cyberspace and I don't know where I am," she confessed after tapping furiously at the keyboard.

It was appropriate for a criminal defence lawyer that when she finally got going, her first port of call was the FBI's "Most Wanted" Web page. A mugshot of a suspect popped up on the screen. "It's Frank from Eastenders," said Erica. Liz was amused, but still sceptical. "It's quite fun ... but it's frivolous really."

But as she got used to the way the Web works and realised she could search for anything, her attitude began to soften. She found a selection of film sites that reviewed current releases. Soon she was sounding quite enthusiastic. "There are all these law databases on the Internet, like Lexus. It says you have to pay, but not very much. And you can get all the Financial Times and Sunday Times law reports."

"You're so boring, Liz," Erica teased. "Everyone else is looking at pictures of Brad Pitt, and Liz is looking at the law." Liz barely heard her. "I'm not as unimpressed as I was initially," she confessed.

So could she imagine having a Net link at home?

"No way. Possibly at work. Or maybe I would come here after work now and see what films were on that night.

"But I don't think I'd ever have it at home. I just don't think I'd use it."

HELLO, WORLD, ANYONE WANT A CHAT?

David Terry, 18, is studying for A-levels in history, politics and general studies at the local college.

He had never been on the Internet before, but David was well aware of the Net. "I've seen all those Internet codes on TV adverts," he said. He was convinced the Net would become central to our lives. "It's the way forward. It's going to be a necessity soon. You'll need it for jobs. You'll have to have it to survive in the business world. You've got to get to know it now."

Once inside the cafe and on the Web for the first time, his certainties evaporated. He had no idea how this applied to him, how the Net could be of use to him personally.

"I don't know what's up there. I haven't got the hang of the system yet," he said as he tried to move the cursor into position on the screen with the trackpad. Ian gave him a quick tour of a few well-known Web sites and then pointed him towards the home pages of various bands and fan clubs. But David showed only a vague flicker of interest.

It was only when Ian showed him the Internet Relay Chat that his attitude changed. The idea of chatting to people on screen anywhere in the world was "cool". Not that people seemed especially desperate to chat to him. "Hi All, I'm from Essex," he began in one chat forum. No one responded. He moved on and found another group discussing Graceland's favourite son. "I thought Elvis was dead," he offered, and was told he did not have the faintest.

David was engrossed with the chat forums for the next couple of hours, but he admitted he was treating it as a sort of computer game. "It's just fun."

CARRIED AWAY ... TO ALASKA

Carl Palmer, 19, is studying for A-levels in psychology, economics and general studies at the local college.

"Yeah, I've heard of the Internet," said Carl. "It connects people through modems, etcetera." What's it for? "Just to keep people in touch around the world." He had also seen the hi-tech thriller The Net, but had never ventured online himself. "I thought it was only for rich people."

Once in front of a terminal, he showed a natural aptitude for the technology and needed little assistance to get going. "Can you find out anything about mountaineering expeditions?" he asked.

A few minutes later, he was flicking through an information service specialising in mountaineering and hiking in Alaska. Carl was impressed: "There's loads of stuff, it's amazing. The only way you can find out stuff like this is by the post or telephone, which is pretty awkward." Could he imagine having this at home? "Yeah, definitely," he said, not even looking up from the screen.

Having had his fill of Alaska, Carl headed for hotter climes and Greece, where he and his friends are planning a holiday. "We've been looking through all these brochures and phoning round travel agents," he explained. "But with this, all you've got to do is sit indoors, five minutes, and you're tapped into whatever you need... it'd save us loads of time and money." Except that if were doing the same thing at home, the bills would be mounting and the phone would be engaged all that time. By now, he had been "surfing" for over two hours.

He moved on to the Internet Relay Chat. The Net had secured a new convert. "It's not going to be a fad," he said finally. "All it can do is get bigger. It's just going to break through."

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