Today in Apple history: eWorld opens its virtual doors

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macintosh_90s
Short of a Nirvana MIDI playing in the background, you can't get more 1990s than this!
Photo: Andrea Grell/Ste Smith

Monday20 On June 20, 1994, Apple launched its short-lived eWorld service. Why is eWorld so significant? Because it represented Apple’s first deep dive into being a provider of internet services — several years before Steve Jobs returned to the company and embraced the importance of going online.

Part messaging service, part news aggregator — and all with Apple’s customary premium prices — eWorld was ahead of its time.

The impetus behind eWorld was a proto-social network, called AppleLink, linking Apple with its various dealers and support centers. In the early 1990s, when John Sculley was still steering the ship at Apple, the decision was made to turn this idea into a more consumer-facing service.

Years before Apple launched iTunes, iCloud and its various internet-based services, Apple acquired a data center in the Bay Area — which it brought from the banking giant Citigroup. It also came to a licensing agreement with America Online (AOL), who built the basic technology eWorld was based upon.

The electronic village comes to life.
The electronic village comes to life.
Photo: Apple

Typically for Apple, the idea was for eWorld to be a “walled garden” so that Apple could control the user experience its customers received. Today, of course, Apple’s moderated, walled garden approach to its App Store makes it something of a rarity compared to alternative models demonstrated by the likes of Android. In the 1990s, however, it was not a big departure from the norm; AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe were all attempting to do similar things — no-one quite sure yet what it was that the internet would turn into.

eWorld didn’t just contain material written by Apple, though. A bit like the iOS News app, it served as a (very early) aggregator of news and entertainment from other services, all filtered through a familiar Apple interface.

Looking at eWorld today, the big surprise for a lot of people will be how cartoonish it looks. The notion of turning the internet (or, at least, a version of it) into a Sim City-style settlement, with different buildings representing different services, seems very unnecessary — and non-workable — to users here in 2016. It makes sense, though, when you consider that what it was doing was narrativizing an abstract idea, in much the same way that the graphical user interface “borrowed” the metaphor of the desktop to explain computing concepts to a new audience. Full web-browsing support didn’t arrive until 1995.

The other massive shock for modern audiences will be how expensive the whole thing was. In a world where internet is increasingly ubiquitous and low-cost, two off-peak hours with eWorld’s dial-up service cost $8.95, while hourly costs beyond this (or during the day) set people back $4.95.

Sadly, while Apple is today superb at gauging the right moment to leap on new technologies, in the 1990s its ability to do so was somewhat diminished. eWorld only ever picked up 147,000 users, and it eventually died in 1996 — with remaining customers migrating over to AOL.

You can get a more detailed, Flash-based demo of how eWorld operated by clicking here.