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'Net surfing: Not just for 'geeks' in Singapore

  • Story Highlights
  • Singapore's Geek Terminal offers clean, well-lit place to do business online
  • Internet access, use of accessories and gadgets all free, no time limit
  • Opportunity for tech partners to showcase latest products among CBD crowd
  • Next Article in World Business »
By Steve Mollman
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SINGAPORE (CNN) -- Where's the Geek Terminal in this city?


Not just for geeks: An entrepreneur hopes to make Web browsing an enjoyable experience in Singapore.

That's what a Singapore entrepreneur hopes you'll be asking on your business travels in a few years. Christopher Lee and his partners got fed up with the difficulty they faced trying to get connected to the Internet -- and to electrical outlets -- while on business trips.

The frustrations are familiar to many. A cafe or restaurant might offer free Wi-Fi, but then no electrical outlet, or vice versa -- and the waitress gives you dirty looks for lingering. Or your hotel charges high connection fees. Or an Internet cafe is essentially an arcade, with loudspeakers blaring screams and explosions from violent online games -- and every other customer is a teenage boy.

The list goes on.

Lee decided there was demand for a convenient, professional place where customers could feel welcome to do business for as long as they pleased, alone or in a group, without pressure to buy anything. The first Geek Terminal, in Singapore, is the result (

When I visited they were rearranging the furniture, and it looked like they weren't quite ready for business. This was an illusion. The cafe space (3,000 square feet) has a modular design where supposedly sound-proof dividers can cordon off sections for private meetings, and they were rearranging things after such a meeting.

The comfortable red chairs and white circular tables (the walls are white, too) are easily rearranged. For electricity, devices can be plugged in anywhere along thin tracks that crisscross the carpeted floor. Adaptors that work with the tracks ensure practically any type of gadget can get juice. Broadband outlets are everywhere, and fast wireless access is also available. It's all free.

Technology partners provide gadgets if you didn't bring your own -- or if you just want to examine their latest products. You can use a cutting-edge laptop from Apple or Compaq, for instance, or a smart-phone from Nokia, or an all-in-one office machine from Canon. There's usually no charge, except there might be a small fee for something like printing. High-definition TVs, VOIP phones, projectors and game consoles are also showcased -- and usually available for free use.

For the technology partners, it's a way to share their latest products in the right part of town to the right crowd of people. Geek Terminal is in the heart of the central business district. "Our location is a big selling point," says Lee. "Many of our technology partners would love to have a showroom right in the middle of town but can't afford it. We are helping to be their showcase."

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For Nokia, another appeal of Geek Terminal is that it allows a potential buyer to try out, say, Wi-Fi on a handset -- in the same kind of environment they're likely to use it in, namely a cafe or restaurant.

"This is a interesting arrangement for us in the sense that consumers get to try the Nokia devices in a natural environment, which they might want to do," says Lim Wee Khee, marketing manager for Nokia in Singapore.

One potential flaw in the business model is if technology partners can't be sold on the idea. In safe, squeaky clean Singapore, that hasn't been a problem, says Lee, and so far no one has ruled him out. Whether it works in more rough-and-tumble cities or neighborhoods remains to be seen. Lee envisions a Geek Terminal in major hub cities -- always in a prime business location with an appealing demographic. Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong are among the future targets.

When I visited, I saw several lunch meetings centered around laptop screens, and a few customers talking over Skype headphones connected to their laptops. (There are no desktop computers at Geek Terminal.) Lee says the cafe has regulars who spend much of the day there hunched over their laptops.

Paddy Tan, a local technology entrepreneur, has visited the cafe between meetings to check e-mail, do instant messaging, update his Web site and use Skype between meetings with clients. He's also used it for meetings with clients, and to demonstrate his products. The closest comparison he can think of for Geek Terminal is a frequent-flier lounge at an airport.

He faults Geek Terminal's location. Though centrally located, it's in a bit of nook that's slightly difficult to find and unlikely to attract many passersby. "It needs to create more visibility to more potential customers," he says.

Darryl Kang, a blogger and analyst programmer, also uses Geek Terminal. "It's the ideal place to be for geeks and the tech-savvy, but the non-tech-savvy won't feel out of place, as it is just like any other cafe/restaurant," he says.

So ... what's the catch? For visitors, there isn't one. That's the odd thing about Geek Terminal. No personal information, like an e-mail address, is asked for. (At least not yet -- Lee says that might be asked for in the future for announcing cafe events.)

This is in contrast to Singapore's expanding Wireless@SG service. Driven by the government's Infocomm Development Authority, this free Wi-Fi service covers much of the city-state's central business district, but it requires registering with your name, cell-phone number, and passport or citizen ID number.

You can just sit down, plug in, and get to work, or play around with cutting-edge gadgets, and it's all free. Yes, there's food and beverage from an Illy's coffee counter, but ordering anything is optional.

Whether the business model works in the long run or needs to be modified remains to be seen -- the cafe opened in June. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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