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An Electronic World

Apple’s eWorld was one of the most loudly trumpeted announcements at Macworld, but it will take a few months before we’ll know how the electronic gold will pan out for Apple. The demos at the show were courtesy of HyperCard, and the actors could merely point at Apple employees who knew little more. Sigh. From what I’ve been able to gather, eWorld is based on the same technology as America Online, albeit with some changes Apple specifically required. One of the claims to fame is a vaunted interface that models a real city (sounds like a graphical Free-Net so far), so if you want to read TidBITS, you’d click on the Newsstand. Sounds fine, but my experience with such systems is that they map badly to the tremendous quantity of information available.

Although all the commercial online services differ in small ways, they all essentially offer email, discussion forums, file libraries, and real-time chatting. Prodigy attempted to change this model and was soon forced back toward the mold by its customers. So as much as eWorld’s interface may set it apart slightly, in the end, it must struggle to offer anything other than the standard features (not that there’s anything wrong with those features – they’re what most people want). eWorld has its connection with Apple going for it and is slated to supplant AppleLink (a change that I have yet to hear anyone mourn). In fact, AppleLink userids are already pre-reserved on eWorld. Given AppleLink’s exorbitant 9,600 bps price of $37 per hour, eWorld’s prices are fairly reasonable at $8.95 for two hours per month and then either $7.90 or $4.95 per hour after that, depending on the time of day you connect.

I must admit to some concern over eWorld’s potential interface. First, it’s based on America Online, which is great for novices, but stinks for experienced users. I’d like to be able to select more than one message in AOL’s FlashMail window at a time (multiple selection, can you imagine!) so I could delete them more quickly. Alternately, if AOL would pay attention to almost every other email package available, not to mention the Finder, they might set something up whereby you could trash a message and have it deleted later. Either way, I’m sick of confirming every stupid action like sending or deleting a message. I’m surprised they let me click the mouse button without asking if I really wanted to click the mouse button, or even better, popping up a system-stopping modal dialog that tells me that I’ve clicked the mouse button in case I hadn’t realized. I won’t get into my other interface or speed gripes with AOL (it takes something like three seconds to open a new mail window on my 660AV when I’m off-line!), other than to mention the fact that there’s no way to use a shortcut to navigate past a high level. When I post the announcement for TidBITS each week, it involves navigating manually through something like seven windows. AOL doesn’t use proper buttons, so QuicKeys can’t automate it well, and I don’t trust the windows to stay in the same place enough to bet on a QuicKeys Click macro.

Second, eWorld’s proposed city metaphor is all fine and nice but must include shortcuts for avoiding the metaphor. In real life you must get in your car and drive to the newsstand to buy a paper, but wouldn’t everyone prefer it if you could just teleport there? Shortcuts, shortcuts, shortcuts! Part of the reason I’m haranguing about this is that an online service like America Online or eWorld is a community, and as such, can only thrive with a variety of users. By over-simplifying the interface, these services alienate the experienced user. I have accounts on every major online service other than Prodigy and GEnie, and frankly, the only ones I participate in are the Internet, CompuServe-ZiffNet/Mac, and occasionally the local user group’s FirstClass BBS. Cost is immaterial – the reason I avoid Delphi and BIX and AOL and AppleLink as a participant in discussions is that it’s too much trouble to use their cryptic and poorly-designed interfaces. FirstClass has a few problems but is quite usable, CompuServe and ZiffNet/Mac become easily accessible via Navigator’s admittedly odd interface, and on the Internet I can use any one of three excellent Usenet newsreaders, NewsWatcher, Nuntius, or InterNews, although in practice I stick with NewsWatcher.

My point is simple. Experienced users like helping beginners; it makes them feel needed. But if the interface is so stupid that it alienates the more experienced users, they won’t bother to stick around to help, and the online community suffers. It’s not that hard to design a good system for experienced users as well; it’s a matter of providing as many shortcuts as possible and the capability to get on, grab stuff, and get off again quickly and automatically. Scripting is nice too. None of these features need interfere with the novice interface in any way – they can be layered on top quite easily if some thought is made from the beginning.

Criticisms aside, I think eWorld will do fine, in part because the number of people coming online does not appear to be slowing down, and in part because eWorld will be the official access point to Apple for most people. eWorld will compete with America Online and the like, but its true attraction will be the niche market of Macintosh and Newton users who want to hang out where Apple hangs out. I see no need for another general service along the lines of CompuServe or Prodigy; instead I think we’re more likely to see smaller services targeted at a specific demographic group. It’s not surprising; as the number of users grows, it’s easier to gather a group that all share something in common.

That’s the rationale behind WIRE, the Women’s Information Resource and Exchange, a service based on FirstClass that costs $15 per month for two hours and additional hours at $2.50 per hour (with additional charges for those not in San Francisco and who use SprintNet). WIRE focuses on issues and information oriented toward women – men are welcome to add to the discussions, but the environment is specifically designed for women. WIRE supports Internet email and news now and plans to add more full-fledged Internet access soon. I don’t know if WIRE has opened to the public just yet, but you can get more information from them at <[email protected]> or call 415/615-8989.

One possible complaint in regard to these niche services is that the same topics are available on the larger services, so why not get a CompuServe account and have the entire thing available as well as the single forum in which you’re interested? That’s a valid argument, but I suspect that the niche services, if run well, will do fine even still. Being smaller, they can react more quickly to customer demands and may provide higher-quality services than the less-focused services. Time will tell, as it always does, being incapable of keeping a secret.

eWorld should open for business in the next few months, undoubtedly accompanied by major fanfare from the Apple propaganda teams. Then we can all see whether or not the fanfare is warranted and if Apple has paid attention to how a program’s interface can significantly affect these concepts of community.

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