A dying trade that is replaced by our smartphone era.
When was the last time you visited an Internet café? My last visit was nearly five years ago during my secondary school days, where they were always crowded with young gamers like me. However, the landscape feels very different today.
Feeling curious, I looked up the number of existing internet cafes across Singapore recently. Out of 20 listed cafés, only 11 are up and running. Are we about to witness the end of an era?
Internet cafés in Singapore have been around for nearly one and a half decades, providing customers computers to surf the Internet, check their emails, and even play online games. What happens when services like these become easily accessible through our mobile phones? Their business declines.
I talked to a few Internet café owners to find out how they are surviving in this era.
One such café is the S.S Internet Centre at Lucky Plaza, run by Michael Selva, 48. The quiet Internet café, which has been running for 13 years, also provides printing services for the Filipino workers who frequent the mall.
OUT OF 21 COMPUTERS, ONLY ONE WAS BEING USED IN THE S.S INTERNET CENTRE.
"Business hasn't been too good since smartphones became so popular among Singaporeans. Four years ago, we could easily earn $500 on weekdays, and $1,500 on weekends. Today, we only get $200 to $300 per day from Monday to Friday, and $500 to $800 on weekends. That tells a lot about our current situation," said the 48-year-old owner.
When asked about the declining number of Internet cafés over the years, Michael was honest about their struggles to cover the mammoth rental fees.
He added: "The rental fees here costs $6,000, so we're in a tight situation. In 2003, it was normal to get a profit of $10,000. It's impossible to reach those margins today. I used to run another café in Bugis+ just last year, but I was forced to close it down after three months. I'm still surviving because I'm running another transportation business outside this café."
INTERNET CAFÉS ARE ON THE DECLINE, THANKS TO SMARTPHONES.
How about the droves of students that used to visit these cafés, then?
19-year-old Singapore Polytechnic student Jack Yeo who happened to be nearby the café, finds it pointless to go to Internet café, as he feels that smartphones can accomplish the same thing.
"Internet cafés are close to becoming irrelevant, especially when I can just complete all my tasks with my smartphone or at home. I used to frequent them when I didn't have a smartphone, but not anymore. Plus, I'd have to pay money just to do those tasks in cafés too," he said.
However, not all Internet cafés are closing down. Some popular ones like JCube in Dhoby Ghaut rebranded themselves to focus on entertainment in a bid to attract its customers.
ONLY GAMING CAFÉS LIKE JCUBE ARE SURVIVING TODAY.
"It's been difficult because the demand for gaming has declined, but we tried to find ways to continue to stay relevant and attract customers. Currently, we added two game stations so that we have a wider variety of gaming services. This has helped us a lot," said Yap Jing Yang, director of J-Cube.
These "revamped" Internet cafés, or gaming cafés rather, also offers customers an immersive and interactive gaming experience—something mobile devices cannot provide for gamers in the comfort of their own homes.
This is echoed by 20-year-old Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Gan Kai Ler, who is an avid gamer himself.
"Just a few years ago when cloud gaming systems such as Steam haven't been fully established, the only way people could play certain games are to buy them. People who are unwilling to pay for these games would come to the LAN shops to play them. Many prefer to come in groups to Internet cafés for the atmosphere and the camaraderie, rather than being isolated in their own homes," explained Kai Ler.
GAMING STATIONS ALSO ADD A NEW DIMENSION TO INTERNET CAFÉS.
The fact that many Internet cafés are slowly closing shop due to smartphones and technology advancements over the last two decades, perhaps gaming cafés need to redefine themselves once again to cater to an ever changing society's demands.