November 11, 1996. Apple unveils its ambitious new plan: a chain of Internet cafes. London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Sydney, among other cities, will host these exclusive and futuristic Apple Cafés. Nothing will be missing: users will be able to “surf the Internet at high speeds, play games, and design web pages alongside the offerings of a full-service cafe“.
The brand partners with Landmark Entertainment Group, Mega Bytes International and Artists Rights Foundation to announce the megaton. “A little Disney”, they say. Behind these companies are some of the most luxurious hotels and industrial complexes in the world, such as Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Universal Studios’ Jurassic Park theme park and many other theme resorts. And just at the last moment a sensible decision is made: go back and freeze the project.
Apple wanted its own Starbucks
In 1996, Internet cafes were something in the making. On the one hand were the Hard Rock Cafe or the Planet Hollywood, two icons of popular culture that languish year after year. Starbucks, for its part, has been serving coffee at discussed prices since 1971 but giving away a stable WiFi connection that millions of students celebrate each year. Novels and movie scripts have been written in the homey comfort of this chain’s armchairs.
Steve Jobs himself participated in the design of these cafes. He was, along with Tony Christopher —founder of Disney Imagineer—, responsible for shaping this idea. They chose the best. There was no lack of ambition. The menus would be evaluated under a committee to offer healthy food of the highest quality. The screens would show movies and video clips on demand through their own platform —yes, we’re talking about iTunes before iTunes. You could run your own video conference and you could even work there for hours.
The interior design was very high-tech and we worked on it for about six months. I think we were trying to create a kind of modern but futuristic look, which is different than the immersive things we do in theme parks: castles and dinosaurs. I remember the designers we put on it were the high-tech, forward-thinking guys. We understood that we were dealing with a computer, that it was future technology, not historical technology, and Apple Cafe had to reflect that.
However, things went wrong. Those were the difficult years for the brand. Michael Spindler stepped down as CEO in 1996 and Gil Amelio walked out of WWDC that same year knowing he would never work with the company again, just as Steve Jobs was boasting about NeXT, his new and successful project. The company would end up hiring Jobs again to work on the Mac operating system and he himself would take care of firing Amelio.
Twenty years later, Apple press representatives were approached by MacRumors and they went so far as to say that they would even be happy to consider it. Today, of course, it seems too remote a possibility. It would have been interesting to see how these cafes would operate, that’s clear, and knowing Apple’s standards in its own Apple Pack, a place where every detail is taken care of to the millimeter.
The idea never quite died: the current App Stores retain that theme park halo, of a sacred temple where hours pass and you don’t even realize. It doesn’t matter what time you go: the friendly treatment and well-cared environment is a trademark of the house. It is evident that the current minimalist and white aesthetic has nothing to do with the concept images that we see throughout the article, with a decoration between Art Deco and Rococo. But That core idea of connecting with users and potential customers remains unchanged.
Today, Starbucks has recovered from its worst numbers and is in good financial shape. Perhaps Apple’s cafes would have worked better than we imagined. The Hard Rock Cafe —founded the same year as Starbucks— have also been resurrected after their worst post-pandemic days. Maybe it’s time for the iCafe.