Internet cafes in the developing world find out what happens when everyone gets a smartphone

All alone at an Internet cafe in Shanghai
All alone at an Internet cafe in Shanghai
Image: REUTERS/Nir Elias
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Internet cafes across the developing world are reporting dwindling numbers of customers as smartphones make the mobile web ubiquitous. After all, why pay for web access on someone else’s creaky old PC when you can peruse Facebook on your Android device from anywhere you like?

In Rwanda, a cafe owner told the New Times last month that he once had 200 customers per day; now he sees about 10. Internet cafes in India are also suffering—some in the southern city of Mysore have opted to sell stationery or sweets instead of web access, while others have diversified their offerings to include flight bookings, mobile phone top-up cards, and accessories for various gadgets. Cafes in Thailand seem to be facing similar challenges when it comes to customer volume, and even cyber cafes in Myanmar, where mobile penetration is just 4%, say visitors have fallen sharply.

Even more developed markets, like those in East Asia, are seeing fewer people flock to venues that cater to immersive online gaming, which one might assume to be immune from the PC to mobile shift. The number of these facilities in South Korea fell to 15,800 last year from 19,000 in 2010, a 17% drop, according to Allison Luong, managing director of gaming industry consultancy Pearl Research. The number of cafes in China, meanwhile, dropped 7% to 136,000 in 2012 from the previous year, she told Quartz.

Some argue, however, that smartphone adoption doesn’t necessarily mean consumers can surmount the digital divide and tap the Web’s full potential. A five-year study released by the University of Washington in July found that Web users in some developing countries continue to rely on public venues like cafes and libraries for Web access even when smartphones are available. “One technology doesn’t replace the other,” the University’s Chris Coward told the global development site Humanosphere. Mobile phones “will not solve the access problem.”