Just before the Internet's meteoric rise in the public consciousness, large centralized dial-up services like America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe dominated the online landscape. In this competitive climate 20 years ago, Apple introduced eWorld, a subscription-based information service available to Mac and Newton users. Despite its closure in 1996, eWorld remains notable for its city-based interface metaphor and as a symbol of Apple's overreach in the era.

Users accessed eWorld through custom client software written by Apple and connected using a traditional dial-up modem hooked to a telephone line. Upon connecting to the service, the eWorld software displayed a playfully-illustrated aerial view of a small city. Each building in the city represented a different topical focus for the service, containing articles, chat rooms, discussion boards, and file downloads centered around various themes.

For example, clicking on the Business and Finance Plaza building opened up a new window that presented the user with articles from Inc. magazine, business-themed discussion boards, and stock quotes. Other buildings focused on games and entertainment, shopping, learning (with encyclopedia access), and Apple product support.

At launch, the service cost $8.95 a month, which included two free hours of access time. Additional access charges were $7.95 an hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and $4.95 an hour otherwise. While such prices seem high today, they were similar to other online services at the time. (Flat-rate ISPs made this pricing structure obsolete soon afterward, however.)

It's worth noting that in a time before the endless firehose of Web-based information we find ourselves inundated with today, most eWorld users could get by using the service for only a handful hours a month--they'd mostly check email a few minutes at a time, read forum messages, and maybe download a file. Even so, eWorld's access prices drastically limited demand for the service.

Trouble in eWorld

From its start in June 1994, eWorld suffered from an obvious lack of marketing and promotion from Apple. Print ads for the service were few and far between, and due to the the lengthy time it took to make changes in Apple manufacturing processes, nearly a whole year passed before Apple bundled the eWorld software with all new Macs.

On top of those problems, the consumer Internet hit in a big way in 1994, becoming the subject of numerous media reports and stealing the spotlight from traditional centralized online services.

On its first birthday, Apple announced that eWorld had attracted 90,000 members. At the time, AOL measured its subscribers in the millions. To expand its reach, Apple planned a Windows client, but it never materialized. That limited potential eWorld subscribers to Mac and Newtown owners, who formed a small minority of the computer using population in the mid-1990s.

Apple introduced an Internet On-Ramp (per the city interface metaphor, users accessed it by clicking on a cartoon road,) in 1995 that allowed eWorld users access to Internet newsgroups, FTP sites, mailing lists, and the Web. It was a competitive move forced by the rise of the Internet; other online services began to transition to Internet gateways around the same time.

eWorld membership continued to rise slowly throughout 1995 as its client software--included with new Macs--introduced a new audience to the service.Behind the scenes, Apple began planning a future transition to an ISP model to maintain viability. But just when times were looking a little better, the bottom fell out.

The end of eWorld

During the last few months of 1995, it became apparent within Apple that the company would post staggering losses at the end of the quarter (around $700 million), which devastated company morale and spooked investors. Cuts had to be made, and services like eWorld, which were tangential to Apple's primary mission of selling profitable hardware, had to go.

In March of 1996, news of the losses hit, and Apple announced that eWorld would close on the 31st of that month.

Many subscribers reacted frantically at the upcoming loss their "electronic city," and for good reason. eWorld's numbers were never stunning, but they were enough to foster a healthy and devoted online community. Many met lifelong friends, future colleagues, and even spouses on the service.

When online communities close down, the people and cultures that formed there tend to split up and flow from one place to another, comingling with other online cultures in much the same way refugees fled ancient cities in the wake of natural disasters and enemy invasion.

In that way, the death of eWorld sparked the birth of a dozen other minor communities--mostly on the Web. But one new service welcomed eWorld expatriots above all others.

During the last month of eWorld's run, a handful of former Apple eWorld employees announced a Web-based service called Talk City that would host chat rooms and discussion boards similar to Apple's. They also announced the hiring of eWorld's loyal community moderators, which cemented the link between the two communities.

At the end of its 22-month lifespan, eWorld boasted only 147,500 subscribers--a paltry sum compared to the 3.5 million accrued by multiplatform AOL. But for those who forged real, lasting relationships on eWorld, the service was never about numbers. It was about family and community. In that sense, the living legacy of eWorld continues to this day.

Editor's note: eWorld subscriber numbers according toApple Confidential 2.0by Owen W. Linzmayer.