On the show Portlandia, there’s a reoccurring bit about Portland being where the ‘dream of the 90’s’ is still alive, although it apparently has been reduced to aging hipsters with tribal tattoos and no jobs. It’s a funny bit and made me reminisce about all the odd things that went on back in the 90’s. One that stands out now is how we used the internet. While the internet of today is very open and one can access anything at anytime, the 90’s internet was a fairly closed off place. The vision for how people would use the internet was more akin to a planned community, where everything would be organized and you would interact with everyone in one consolidated location. Nothing exemplifies that concept more than Apple’s ‘dream’ for the internet in the 90’s, eWorld.
eWorld was introduced by Apple in June of 1994 as an online service exclusively for Macintoshes.1 It was partly based on AOL technology, although was a completely separate service. While it acted as an internet service provider (ISP), it was not the generic portal to the internet that we are used to today. Online services in the 90’s were a curious hybrid of ISPs and social networks. You would use the service to access the internet over your phone line, but then the service itself would provide you most of your content. Other online services at the time (AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy) all operated on the same concept. They would allow you access to the internet, but only to their closed vision of the internet.
eWorld took this closed vision to the extreme by modeling itself on a quant, small town, where you’d actually have to click on buildings, such as a post office or library, to navigate.2 Everything you would need was already in eWorld, including your email, chat rooms, message boards, and documents. This small town was all brought together by the very 90’s concept of having a cartoon person guide you to places (cough, Clippy, cough).3 To get an idea on what eWorld was actually like, a dedicated fan has actually recreated the experience of using eWorld (complete with OS 7 interface and modem sounds) in a modern web browser.
I first encountered eWorld back in 1994 when I was 12 years old and my dad bought me my first computer, an Apple Performa 630cd. I had never used the internet before and eWorld was my first gateway into this new world of interconnected computers. I had to dial into e-World using a 14.4k dial-up modem, which would be unimaginably slow by today’s broadband standards. Yet, at the time I didn’t know any better and it was normal to have to wait through a minute or two of beeps and hisses until you were actually connected to the network.
Once I entered eWorld, it was definitely very limited compared to what we are used to today. There was email, but I literally knew no one with an email address when I first went online, so my email inbox remained mostly empty. There was no access to the world wide web as eWorld didn’t add this feature until a year after it launched. There were some forums, and document libraries, and even a shareware depository, but most were rather limited in scope. There even was a newstand but there wasn’t much content available (who would have thought Apple could produce a newstand with little content).
The one feature I remember using most were the chat rooms, dubbed eWorld Live. Back in the 90’s chat rooms were very popular. Since there was no Facebook or Twitter, a major way most people interacted was through chat rooms. Yet, chat rooms were usually pretty sorry places. They were organized by topic, but the chances of finding a rousing conversation on the topic you were interested in was slim. You’d mostly run into either empty chat rooms or else ones that were so full that it became a flood of mismatched conversations. Even if you managed to find a chat room with serious people talking about what you were interested in, you'd always run the risk some troll would invade your room and cause havoc. There's a reason chat rooms don't really exist anymore.
Aside from the chat rooms, there wasn’t much else to do in the sleepy town of eWorld. But even if there had been more content, there was a major issue using eWorld - time. The strangest thing about internet services in the 90’s was you paid by the amount of time you spent online. There were no unlimited services, it was all based on an hourly rate. eWorld cost $8.95 a month, which seems like a fair price, until you realize that what you got for that was only two free night-time or weekend hours. Yes, you read that correctly, your monthly fee only included two hours a month, and not even any hours during the weekday. If you wanted to use it more than two hours a month you had to pay $4.95 per hour for night or weekend hours, and $7.95 an hour for weekday hours. This would be unthinkable today, as at those rates most people would rack up hundreds of dollars in bills. Yet, at the time this was normal (AOL did not introduce unlimited hourly plans until October of 1996) and people had to watch very carefully how long they were spending on the internet.
Although I still have fond memories of my time using eWorld, in retrospect, it was a closed place, with limited content, that cost an exorbitant amount of money to visit for more than a few hours. It also suffered from Apple’s all around mismanagement in the 90’s, because although it was included on every Mac sold, CEO Michael Spindler decided to not advertise or market it in any way. This hurt its chances of ever gaining traction against the stiff competition from a number of other more popular online services at the time. It really is no surprise eWorld only lasted about two years and was unceremoniously shut down in March of 1996.4
I think the demise of eWorld, and eventually all of its fellow online services of the 90's, shows how a walled off, closed vision of the internet doesn’t work. While Apple’s products and services have remained closed off in many areas since then, Apple has always been conscious of keeping the internet itself free and open.5 The only company that recently has attempted a 90's style closed vision of the internet is Facebook, which has its own email, instant messaging service, and now even a Google like search. Yet, I think any attempt to close people off from the open and free internet is bound to fail. The dream of the 90's internet is not alive, not even in Portland.
2. Scott Converse, head of R&D for Apple Online Services during the 90's, posted some interesting concept art of eWorld on his blog.
4. An interesting footnote to the demise of eWorld was it actually made money for Apple. According to Chris Christensen, an Apple employee in the 90's, while eWorld itself was unprofitable, the original deal with AOL to create eWorld included Apple getting cheap AOL stock options, which they eventually cashed in for a big profit when AOL's stock skyrocketed in the late 90's. For more inside info see The eWorld That Was and Wasn't.
5.This has led to the seemingly contradictory approach Apple has taken to pulling any app on iOS that has even the hint of nudity, yet allowing the Safari app, which can easily be used to go to an untold number of pornographic and violent websites. Apple realizes that if it ever dared touch Safari with any kind of restrictions that the backlash would be swift and devastating.
*I collected all my sources and other random links and facts here