Can you imagine life without the internet?

Yet, 23 years ago when Apple introduced the iMac, internet access was expensive and unreliable. Even so, then-CEO Steve Jobs was among the first to see that connectivity should be baked inside the product that you got.

This is the story of Earthlink and Apple.

The trends of change

Back in ’98 when Apple’s returnee-interim CEO launched the iMac, the company had captured at least three computing trends that drove the product’s global success and pushed Apple into ascendancy:

  • The idea that computers can be sold as consumer devices, not as beige boxes — an idea that seems to have reached EOL at this point.
  • An appetite for choice and the need to challenge the Windows-based status quo.
  • A belief that the internet would become both as important and as forgotten as any other utility.

Apple’s attractive iMac looked like nothing that had been seen in PC design before and shipped with one essential component no one else offered at the time: A modem. You could plug the system in, tap a few buttons, and you were connected.

Of course, in these digitally transformed times we take this for granted; internet access and mobile technology have become essential to daily life in every part of life. But it wasn’t always this way.

Back to the future: EarthLink and Apple

I was reminded of the umbilical connection between the iMac and the internet by a podcast interview with entrepreneur and EarthLink founder Sky Dayton.

Founded in 1994 in response to how difficult it was to get a computer online at that time, Dayton’s company became the default U.S. internet provider in Macs in 1998. To put this moment into perspective – many, many people misunderstood or underestimated the transformative potential of the Internet at the time.

While some of us were exploring the medium for communication, productivity and information exchange, many more saw it as a fad.

Dayton shares the story of one internet backlink provider he’d hoped to work with who told him they didn’t see an opportunity because, “everyone who wants to be connected to the Internet already is,” he was told. “People weren’t expecting the internet to scale as it has.”

One person who did see the opportunity was Jobs, who invited the EarthLink founder in for a meeting. (I like to think part of the reason Jobs was so switched onto the internet was because he knew about the first Web browser built at CERN in 1990 on a computer made by his other company, NeXT, which invented much of the OS we now call macOS, iOS, and iPadOS.)

A meeting that changed everything?

Dayton recalls what was said at the meeting: “So, we got together in a conference room and first thing I did was I said, “Hey, Steve, can you explain what your strategy for Apple is?” And he got up on the whiteboard, and he drew four boxes.”

And he said:

“There’s going to be a consumer product and a business product for laptop and desktop. Four products, that’s it.

“And the consumer desktop product was going to be called the iMac, and the I — as we know — was for internet, and he wanted to have this computer be unique in that you would take it out of the box, you would plug in power, and then you would plug in a phone line, and you would turn it on, and the first thing it would do would be sign you up to the internet. Because again, very few people were on the internet at the time, right? So, you could assume that most people that got one of these didn’t have an internet connection.”

Making the complex simple

After that meeting (Dayton doesn’t say when it took place, but I imagine it was in early 1998), EarthLink became the default internet provider.

This meant US users could buy an iMac, plug it into their telephone network using the supplied cable, tap a few buttons, enter their credit card info, and get online fast. This was revelatory at that time, and Jobs followed this up by bringing yet another technology we use every day into the mass market with the iBook launch in 1999. It was the first mass market notebook to offer WiFi access in an attractive package.

Who doesn’t use WiFi today?

In 2000, EarthLink received a $200 million investment from Apple, which had just introduced Mac OS X at its January 2000 Macworld Expo San Francisco event. Arley Morgan Baker, director of corporate communications at EarthLink said then:

“Everybody I’ve spoken to just wants to go straight out and buy a new Mac. Mac OS X was the thing that really made me drool.”

The internet becomes a human right

The relationships between Apple and these technologies were always important. Its adoption of them gave it a ringside seat from which to embrace what we now see as the digital transformation of everything.

The changes wrought by these connected technologies led Apple to the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and (indeed) the current momentum behind protecting privacy online. These profound changes have also enabled society during the current pandemic to protect at least some normal activity, with work, learning, and social connections maintained by these technologies.

“It’s fascinating to me to see back to the kind of electricity analogy, everything that we’re doing with technology and information technology specifically now, it all started with getting people to connect and I think EarthLink helped put probably on the order of 10% of the United States population online or something like that,” said Dayton.

“I mean, it’s very cool. I run into people all the time, they still have their EarthLink email address.”

Today, as digital becomes part of almost every facet of daily life, access is now considered by many to have become a human right.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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