Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Broadband and the Burst of Bangalore’s Browsing Bubble

Bangaloreans may not have noticed it, but net cafes, or internet browsing centres, are to India’s IT capital as the tiger is to a cell phone service provider – a twist in the catchphrase that featured in its recent advertisements makes for an apt description; few such centres are in vogue, save them. From the days of obsession, similar to what the Dutch had for tulips, to the near disillusionment of browsing centres, the IT capital has had its own Roman Empire; the market scenario prior to the entry of broadband internet can be approximated to the reign of Julius Caesar.

Obsession? That too with the internet? Anybody growing up in the late 90s would extoll at length on the city’s then new-found obsession. For, inviting wide stares and fascinated looks on anything remotely associated to the internet – then in its infancy in the nation – be it on a TV channel, tabloid, newspaper, magazine, or heck, even a porno mag, was not unusual. Understandably, Sabeer Bhatia, the creator of Hotmail, was the then toast of the nation; so was Tendulkar who could score centuries at will, but this guy could strike a deal with the very Bill Gates, so there!

From the cryptic telegrams and long distance trunk calls (aka the phone calls with the not so gentle reminders every three minutes) of the previous century, to today’s iWhatnots, it must be agreed that technology has served as a reminder that how we communicate is as important, if not more, than what we communicate. The very idea of switching on a desktop and a dial-up internet connection (I would not be surprised if the Oxford English dictionary decides to render such terms redundant) to check for one’s mail or to chat sounded sophisticated; a browsing centre was the obvious destination if one was not wired to the net at home. Having a mail id meant boosting one’s ‘cool’ factor into the stratosphere. Checking mail for forwards, chain mail, or updates from service providers in our 10 MB inboxes (yes, you read it right) was a ritual in itself. Online chat rooms were where we morphed into the proverbial Alice in Wonderland, opening up to many an anonymous person, who could be a stone’s throw away, but posing to be from another galaxy. Exhibiting ignorance to any of these meant inviting rude stares, which one would normally make after inserting his/her finger into an electric socket.

Movies like You’ve got mail were on the top of everyone’s must-watch lists. Film songs including a word or two on email, chat or internet were instant chart busters and merited place in walkman tapes (CDs were cost prohibitive then). Had ABBA been formed twenty years later, their hit single Ring Ring, Why Don’t You Give Me A Call... would have instead gone as Ping Ping, Why Don’t You Send Me A Mail...

The cafe (a term which should be nominated for the biggest misnomer of sorts) had a person maintaining a log book, who could have been straight out of the License-raj era. Connection speed, it seemed, was never a factor to be considered. A ‘sophisticated’ browsing centre that I knew which also had air-conditioning, printers, scanners and fax machines was named ‘the Web Crawler’. Yet, lengthy queues were never unusual. Imagine a hundred customers waiting before you inside a crowded hairdresser’s saloon on a Sunday morning. Following the principles of demand and supply to the-T were these cafes, where hourly browsing rates once even touched 30-40 bucks, with rate slabs that would make our income tax scales look like child’s play. Teens constrained by pocket money limits had to keep more than just an eye on the clock, lest they face parental sanctions. Hapless users were charged higher rates for emerging even a few minutes late. Customers cried, cajoled, protested and even shouted, but the clerk remained unmoved, forcing the customer to part with extra money.

It was as if technology was waiting to play the biggest prank on such heartless lords.

True to word, along came broadband internet, pulling down browsing charges to the depths of the deepest of oceans with it. Net addicts never had it better as these connections also came with better download limits, in addition to the cheap browsing rates. Soon, cafe owners could have mistaken their centres to be in the Sahara or Siberia, as their milling crowds dwindled. They had to diversify or perish, xerox (photocopying) machines, laser jets, dedicated phones for long and short-distance calls started replacing the once prized assets of the cafes, the desktops. Browsing charges dropped. I mean DROPPED. For the same amount that people once paid for browsing for a few hours, they could now practically reside inside the cafe – only people were no longer interested.

Nero could have been fiddling around in a corner of the city as the empire crumbled – bit by bit.

So if you come across a shop that displays the board “Indian Rupee symbol.svg10 for one hour net/browsing/chat”, remember that these are vestiges of what was once a glorious, pompous empire.