Cyber-Savvy Seattle Leads The Way on the Web

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In the city that spawned software giant Microsoft Corp. and myriad smaller computer firms, there's an information-highway traffic jam so big that Nacole Kos can't get a phone line.

The University of Washington student has been trying for more than a month to arrange for service, but the telephone company "just told me I have to wait," she says.

The demand for phone lines is so big in Seattle - due in part to a rise in separate lines for computer modems - that the phone company has just announced the metro region will get two new area codes.

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Seattle has long had its contingent of the technologically literate, but the Internet boom seems to have touched nearly everyone. Now Seattle is emerging as one of the most cyber-savvy cities in the United States, serving as a window on how other cities may look in the not-to-distant future. The nation's cappuccino capital, it seems, has become cyberspace central.

And for those Seattle residents who want to sip a hot beverage and surf the Web, there's the the Capitol Hill Internet Cafe, a local cyber-bistro where customers often have to wait their turns to log on at one of the six computers. The place boasts a pair of printers and a color scanner, and four more computers are promised soon.

Cafe co-owner Andrew Friedman says the computers are occupied nearly all the time. "Everyone has a different application orientation - [there are] gamers, browsers," etc., he says. Two other 'wired' cafes have also opened here recently.

Computer-literacy has even changed Seattle's neighborhoods. Take Fremont, for example. Two years ago, this quaint neighborhood was dominated by dusty antique shops and quiet artists' studios.

But now "it's been invaded by the techies, and you can't go to lunch there without overhearing tech jargon," says Rob French, who runs the new-media communications firm Doghouse Productions.

Several of Seattle's neighborhood community centers have been wired to the Internet for more than a year and offer instruction in going online, which is particularly popular among senior citizens.

Margaret Gudmestad of suburban Normandy Park, who is retired, has embraced the cyber world. "I use it for a very specialized interest," she says. Logging on frequently, she peruses financial sites and keeps track of stock quotes. She also uses e-mail to keep up with friends and family.

Seattle schools are also working to enhance their cyber-capability. The once-moribund Nathan Hale High School spent an entire general-use block grant on high-end computer equipment. Linda Paros, an administrator, says Hale now lures eager students whose "parents realize the importance" of having their children become Web-literate. "Now they come in before school, after school - they love it."

Another quintessentially Seattle innovation is the Internet pay phone. By sliding a credit card through a slot on the side of these lectern-sized devices, residents can get access to e-mail or cruise the World Wide Web when they're at the mall, the post office, or one of the other locations where 18 test units were placed in March. So far, these public computers have registered about 100 log-ons and six hours of online time each day.

The most obvious reason for all this online activity in Seattle: "It's the mother ship - Microsoft," says Mr. French. "Everybody in this town works for Bill Gates," he says of the software company's CEO.

He says the high level of Web-savvy is, to be fair, probably also driven by the strong biotech industry and the commanding presence of Boeing Co., the aircraft giant.

But if Seattlites like being wired, they may like their newly resurgent baseball team, the Mariners, even more. Demonstrating a tool that could combine these passions, Seattle-based Progressive Networks recently showed off its RealVideo technology, which allowed Web-cruisers to watch - albeit not as clearly as on television - a baseball game between the Mariners and the Cleveland Indians.

Fortunately for local employers - who often worry about workers spending too much time goofing-off online - the Mariners don't schedule many games during business hours.

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