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The Internet is In

When Apple introduced its second-generation commercial information service, eWorld, the stated goal was to have eWorld eventually replace the expensive and aging AppleLink. Apple went so far as to reserve AppleLink usernames on eWorld so all Apple employees, many of whom rely on AppleLink for internal email, would be able to switch to eWorld with a minimum of fuss. Whatever its technical achievements or failings, eWorld was the anointed solution for Apple and its users.

As we all know, eWorld hasn’t been a shocking failure, but it hasn’t been a major success. As America Online, using the same basic software, has ballooned its user base to a reported four million people, eWorld has slowly risen to a few hundred thousand users. And lest Apple be singled out for castigation, keep in mind The Microsoft Network (MSN) has faced similar problems. After the free beta test period ran out, MSN subscribers have been packing their bags and leaving at a rate of over 100 per day, according to one rumor from the nets.

These events more or less match with what I thought was going to happen. My comment in regard to both was "The world doesn’t need another CompuServe." For eWorld I qualified that statement, because I think Apple had a chance to make eWorld the place to find Apple online, and if Apple had managed to offer and encourage the use of official tech support on eWorld from the beginning, eWorld might have stood a chance in the short term. But in a victory for content over style, eWorld’s bustling welcome sound has never reflected a bustling user community using and contributing scads of eWorld-only information. Now it seems MSN has learned the same lesson after making many of the same mistakes. As one friend who recently dropped MSN after the beta test said, "It’s a serious ghost town." People don’t want to use a commercial service these days, they want to use the Internet.

Apple and Microsoft, as much as they may have ignored that message in the past, have gotten it now. MSN’s goal has subtly changed over the last year or so from being a CompuServe-killer to being a commercial information service that doubles as a method of gaining full Internet access via tools included with Windows 95. Apple in turn has announced eWorld will move toward an Internet-centric model. Early indications of this are an increasing number of links from within eWorld out to the Web, and in a message on AppleLink, Vice President of Apple Internet Services Peter Friedman, said "eWorld’s next major release, expected in mid-1996, will be entirely based on Internet/Open Standards technology (instead of its current proprietary technology) and live out on the Internet."

Perhaps even more telling is that Apple has dumped plans to move internal Apple communications from AppleLink onto eWorld. Apple has decided instead to move all communications to an Internet-based service. This won’t happen immediately, of course, but means AppleLink’s death grip on the tree halfway down the cliff will remain strong for some time. It also means Apple will be releasing the reserved AppleLink usernames for use by eWorld users. For more information on the change, check out the following path on AppleLink.

AppleLink HelpDesk -> eWorld Showcase -> eWorld, AppleLink, ‘Net Strategy.

I approve greatly of this move for one simple reason. I don’t believe that a company – any company – can produce stellar Internet products unless all of their employees have access to the Internet and use it regularly. Internet familiarity at all levels of a company introduces a set of checks and balances on any Internet product or service, since it’s far more likely internal pre-release users and testers will relate to the product or service on a consumer level. This, in turn, will hopefully prevent some of the sillier product ideas put forth by people who don’t understand what the Internet is about.

Large companies often wish to avoid the Internet because of support issues, security concerns, and because programs designed for Internet communications aren’t always as focused as those designed for a specific type of internal network. I’d argue, though, that any company doing business on the Internet, producing Internet products, or in any way skirting the edges of the net must encourage Internet familiarity in its employees. Support and security concerns are less of an issue these days, as more companies release commercial versions of necessary Internet clients and as firewall technologies continue to improve. And although Internet email and groupware-type programs still tend to more generic than their LAN-based brethren, the flexibility provided by supporting Internet standards more than makes up for it.

For instance, Apple hasn’t said precisely what programs it will use to move its communications to "an Internet-based service." But think about it. As long as Apple sets up servers that speak SMTP and POP for email, Apple employees can choose from a number of different alternatives, ranging from Cyberdog to Eudora to Emailer to CommuniGate to PowerTalk (since Apple just acquired StarNine’s Mail*Link for PowerTalk gateway). Other companies in similar situations wouldn’t have to worry about Mac and PC versions of the same LAN email package because there are plenty of Internet programs for both platforms, and all of them work with Internet standards.

It remains to be seen how completely or how efficiently Apple moves its internal communications infrastructure to the Internet, but even the realization such a move is necessary is a large and important step. I’m curious to see what specific implementations Apple settles on, and I think Apple should publicize to its user base how a large company can rely entirely on a combination of Apple technology and the Internet for its communications.

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