Today in Apple history: AppleLink Personal Edition is the precursor to AOL

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AppleLink
Do you remember AppleLink?
Photo: Apple Confidential

May 20 Today in Apple history May 20, 1988: Apple launches AppleLink Personal Edition, a user-facing online service that lets customers connect using a Mac-style user interface.

Years before Apple got serious about its internet efforts, AppleLink offered a glimpse of things to come. Unfortunately for Apple, it did not become quite the hit many hoped!

Connecting Apple to its dealers

Conventional wisdom suggests that Apple missed out on taking advantage of the internet early on. It was only after Steve Jobs returned in 1997 that Apple launched the internet-focused iMac and began taking Mac orders online. That’s not entirely true, though.

In fact, Apple got a number of online initiatives running very early in the internet’s existence — even before Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. In the mid-1980s, Apple launched AppleLink. This ahead-of-its-time product was the first online service to use a Mac-style graphical user interface instead of a command-line interface.

One of the original AppleLink floppy disks
One of the original AppleLink floppy disks.
Photo: Gthemasterj/eBay

Created as a collaboration between Apple and General Electric Information Services, AppleLink was intended for use by Apple dealers. It was an online support service, designed to cut costs on traditional necessities like phone calls, paper documents and more.

GE charged Apple around $300,000 per year to host the service. Users then paid $10 to $100 per hour for using it. This depended on where customers were based and what service they required.

Inside Apple, AppleLink functioned as an internal email service. Later on, in 1991, it was memorably the service used by astronauts who sent the first email from space, using a Macintosh Portable.

AppleLink: This time it’s personal

Having seen the success of AppleLink, Apple approached Quantum Computer Services about setting up an AppleLink Personal Edition for regular users. The service was introduced at an event called AppleFest in Boston on May 20, 1988.

Apple priced the service at $15 per hour during prime time and $6 per hour off-peak. Users also paid a $35 annual fee.

AppleLink Personal Edition gave users a stripped-down version of AppleLink. This included a reference library, information about products, and general services with news and other information.

The service attracted tens of thousands of customers, making it a decent hit for its day. Unfortunately, Apple clashed with Quantum Computer Services over things like the interface’s design. They also disagreed over whether to include the software as part of the standard programs bundled with a new Mac. (Apple didn’t like the idea of giving away software for free at the time.)

Quantum, which retained the rights to the software, wound up taking Apple’s name off it. In 1991, it renamed it America Online Inc., later shortened to AOL. As anyone who used the internet during the 1990s will remember, this became a tech juggernaut of its day!

Apple tried another version of AppleLink Personal Edition in 1994 with the launch of its eWorld service. Sadly for Apple, eWorld flopped. Soon, the company once again pulled the plug. It took until Jobs’ return for Apple to pursue a successful online strategy.

Do you remember AppleLink? Let us know in the comments below.