I mentioned WIRE’s Internet access above, and eWorld’s people have said that they too plan to provide Internet gateways. That’s good, if not surprising or exciting. Steven Levy of Macworld wrote a column in the March issue about how difficult it was for him to get Internet access and how awful it was to use once he got it. He then suggested that Apple should write the ultimate Internet application, whatever that might be, and basically give it away so as to link Apple’s name irrevocably with the Internet.
Levy’s complaints about how he couldn’t get a SLIP connection working after 10 hours with a master hacker are a bit of hyperbole – it’s not necessarily possible to quickly set up a SLIP connection to all providers, but in general I can do it for a Northwest Nexus SLIP or PPP account in about 10 minutes. However, Levy hits on the basic problem of Internet access, which is that it’s still related to where you live. Anyone can use Northwest Nexus via SLIP for $22.50 per month flat rate, but if you don’t live near Seattle you must currently pay long distance charges which can range from $4.80 per hour to $15 per hour (the lower rate is possible if you call during off-peak hours and use one of the Sprint or MCI discount plans).
So what Apple could do is to create a program that could dial an 800 number to set up an account and at the same time retrieve all the nasty settings for MacTCP and PPP (no need to use SLIP if you’re writing from scratch and controlling the server), along with settings for Eudora and NewsWatcher. Then make the Internet access available everywhere via one of the existing networks like SprintNet or Tymnet so people don’t have to pay long distance charges. I’m not talking anything conceptually difficult here, and all without wasting any effort on creating a new service complete with discussion groups and chatting and email, since that all exists already on the Internet in profusion.
One potential argument against my suggestion is that there’s no way to control the content of Internet as a commercial service could. But in fact, does that matter? Commercial services essentially all sell time, and as long as people are calling specific numbers, it’s easy to charge for the time. Creating new information resources on the Internet would be fine; they’d simply be available to far more people if desired, or limited to paying customers who connecting using the special telephone numbers. No worry there.
However, and here’s where Levy’s article lapses, we do not need an ultimate Internet application from Apple. The connection is the only tricky part; after that there is a surplus of great software available on the nets, much of it for free. A smart company would make it more readily available, perhaps through a custom front end that nicely organized it and enabled single-click downloading, but there’s little need for an ultimate Internet application. By the time the company was done, the Internet would have come up with some fabulous new service and the best tool to use it would once again be a clever little freeware application from John Norstad or Peter Lewis or Steve Dorner. That’s good – why step on the individual programmers who can program circles around a ponderous commercial outfit?
We don’t need an integrated application, period. This is the age of modules, of component applications, not of feature-laden Godzilla programs that can do anything under the sun (except the one strange thing you want) but take two years to upgrade since they’re so complex and integrated. The individual little applications that we have now are better, since they are increasingly able to work together to become more than the sum of the parts.
So that’s my advice for you, Apple. Make the connection to the Internet a no-brainer and then let people pick and choose among the tools that are already accessible. Steven Levy is right – by linking the words Macintosh and Internet, you would ensure your continued success. It’s not as though there aren’t a number of very bright people within Apple who participate in the Internet regularly and also have the right idea – listen to them. There’s nothing wrong with eWorld, but it’s inherently a little dull since we’ve seen it all before. If you want to change the world, Apple, look to the Internet. If you don’t, someone else will, since as much as I’d like to think of myself as an extremely clever person, the basic idea is simple. And of course, I’ve just shared it with as many as 100,000 people, most of them already on the Internet.