Twenty-five years ago, Cyberia opened as the first cafe with full internet access in the world, located at 39 Whitfield Street in London’s Fitzrovia.
Created to give Londoners a glimpse of the newly accessible internet, Cyberia was a warm, non-geeky place, infused with the smell of coffee from the second Lavazza coffee machine in town (the first was at Bar Italia, of course).
The cafe was originally an internet training centre equipped with six Dell computers, which was all we could manage as nearly every visitor needed a one-to-one tutorial.
Email, FTP, Gopher and the early Mosaic browser with a handful of art and music pages were available to keen newbie cybernauts. Early visitors were mainly men, so I set up women-only HTML courses to encourage take-up by women.
“David Bowie was doing link-ups on BowieNet, while Gary Barlow hosted online night chats for fans worldwide”
Our cafe was next to Whitfield Street Recording Studios and Kylie Minogue, the Motown crew and Bono all came to Cyberia to learn how to browse and email. David Bowie was doing link-ups on BowieNet, while Gary Barlow hosted online night chats for fans worldwide.
Mick Jagger and Maurice Saatchi were early investors, as was Easynet – the first human-friendly internet service provider in the UK, so early training was all about how to set up from home.
Cyberia became a hub for gamers as well as musicians, with our beautiful arched basement serving as SubCyberia, a heaven for the D&D crowd and open 24/7.
We also led on cyber design, with store merchandise and Cyberia’s iconic translucent floppy disks in neon lime created by my favourite designer Sebastian Conran.
Conran also created a range of urban clothing, including a courier bag with reflective Cyberia branding that became visible on every cool biking pioneer in London.
We also had printers and opened another floor as a co-working space for web freelancers, graphic designers, Macromedia Director users and techies who needed an internet connection, as hardly anyone had one at home then.
Cyberia was one of the world’s first gateways to cyberspace – but not to online retail as shopping tools had not yet emerged.
The birth of online retail
I only realised that we were leading a high street tech revolution when Terry Pratchett walked in, launching his book on The Internet Bookshop in 1995.
The notion that you could buy books online was revolutionary, not least as payments online had only just been introduced following Lou Montulli inventing HTTP cookies for Netscape in 1995. Cookies enabled a persistent shopping basket, while Taher Elgamal came up with the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) to secure the safe use of credit cards, setting the scene for online shopping.
The Internet Bookshop created a prototype of a shopping page with a search field on the right and a menu on the left. Online shopping may be faster today, but it has pretty much the same UX and sequence as it did in 1995.
Musicians already familiar with the internet started selling their first physical records online, then music itself got digitalised, shared on Usenet and, since 1999, on the infamous Napster.
As internet retail took off, the high street started changing, losing competition to more cost-effective online shops. Ever a cyberfeminist, I wanted to get women involved in technology and realised this new emerging virtual retail would be irresistible to my female friends. Imagine being able to shop from your desktop during lunchtime at work!
The convenience of that vision was tempting, so I started looking for an adventurous fashion brand that would realise this concept with me.
Needless to say, Caprice was a better model than WAP was a tool for shopping, but we sensed it was going to happen one way or another as customers yearned for phones that would allow them to browse the net, buy games, pay bills and shop on the go.
Making it mobile
Proper smartphones came in 2007 when iPhones helped us to shop on the bus during our commute.
Alan Sugar, previously an electronic device guru, missed the mobile revolution and argued with me that we didn’t need mobiles to have browsers.
“Why would I need a mobile computer when I have a PC in the office and a PC at home?” he kept saying. I always thought his blind spot was because he was not commuting by tube.
Today, 75% of UK online shopping is done on trains, buses and even “on the bog” as reported in by mobile phone companies in 2019, with PCs declining as shopping tools.
“The high street can’t compete and needs to evolve beyond shopping, finding new ways to serve the non-retail needs of digital natives”
Men, particularly, fell in love with Amazon, discovering stress-free shopping based on self-service, and today represent more than 74% of Amazon’s Prime membership, according to our research for the Grimsey review.
The future of online shopping lies in convenience and low prices, affordable due to an entirely automated self-service buying process. The high street can’t compete and needs to evolve beyond shopping, finding new ways to serve the non-retail needs of digital natives.
Millennials much prefer to try things on in the comfort of their own homes, shunning overheated stores and poorly lit changing rooms.
‘Unattended shopping’ for basic items is increasingly possible via vending machines in self-service burger joints, pubs or automated gyms. People will still frequent venues, but there may not be any staff in them as self-service takes over.
The survivors on the high street will thrive through their promotion of online brands, such as Boxpark in London or Showfields in New York. Even the most successful virtual shop wants to bring their brand to life in a physical environment.
Expressing the brand in a pop-up is so much more emotional than a flat 2D screen experience, as shown by lingerie brand Bluebella’s pop-up at Boxpark for Valentine’s Day. Visitors could smell the candles and absorb the atmosphere created by the brand, feel the softness of its lacy fabric and then order products online from an in-store tablet, with no need to carry shopping bags on the busy Underground.
“Even the most successful virtual shop wants to bring their brand to life in a physical environment”
Pop-ups are also temporary, increasing the urgency of buying on the spot.
Planners should look to reduce ground floor for retail, but encourage flexible Hong Kong-style zoning, where there might be a gym on the third floor, a fashion pop-up on the fourth floor, a cafe on the roof and innovative co-working units across all the axes of a mixed-use building.
Cyberia introduced Londoners to the internet, email and online music, games and shopping at the start of this project. 25 years later, cafes worldwide are full of people browsing online shops on their mobiles while having a coffee. Maybe we should just embrace this trend and rename high streets cafe streets.