Apple Computer Inc.'s Eworld on-line information service, the latest stop on our tour of cyberspace communities, will celebrate its first anniversary this summer by adding Internet access and some multimedia features.
With the forthcoming Internet links, Eworld stands the best chance of any of the second-tier networks of joining the leaders of the consumer on-line industry.
Or, it may instead become a good example of a popular niche bTC network, one that has a distinct personality and a valuable set of features that appeal to a loyal but limited community of users.
The first year has been a struggle for Eworld, with numerous growing pains. Despite its handicaps -- it is not available to users of Windows-based computers, and it does not yet have Internet links beyond electronic mail -- Eworld has done surprisingly well.
It has attracted an audience of about 80,000 Apple Macintosh users, making it the fifth-largest commercial service, behind CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy and Delphi; it is roughly the same size as General Electric's GEnie on-line service.
When it brings the approximately 60,000 Applelink users into the fold later this year, Eworld could swell to become the fourth-largest consumer network.
For consumers, Eworld has all the charms and frustrations of a small town. It is just off the information superhighway, making it hard to reach for some visitors, and once they get there, there is not always a lot to do.
I was invited to visit a regularly scheduled discussion forum on Eworld recently and was confronted with a blank screen, the on-line equivalent of walking into a deserted auditorium. After a few moments, the moderator greeted me rather forlornly, by my screen name. I tried not to slam the door on my way out.
The bigger electronic communities rarely have such voids, and they offer more services, richer information pools and fancier features. On the other hand, big crowds and bustle are not
Eworld appears to deserve its reputation as a kinder, gentler on-line community, one where women and children can feel safe on the virtual streets and where newcomers are almost always greeted pleasantly, not with the abuse and insults common on other services. The service has the cyberspace equivalent of constables on duty around-the-clock. Boors, bullies and sexual predators are bounced quickly. Users are not permitted to be completely anonymous. Eworld is also developing several interesting services specifically for children, both for fun and for education.
"Right now, I think Eworld would be a good choice for women who wanted to go on line, in terms of ease of use, friendliness, its policy on screen names, and other stuff," said Mary C. Doyle, a senior analyst for Link Resources, a research company in New York.
From a purely subjective perspective, the level of discourse on Eworld's forums appears much higher than on America Online, for example. For better or worse, Eworld is invariably compared with America Online, with which it shares core technology. (One can expect Eworld's World Wide Web and Internet features to be similar to those of America Online's Macintosh features.)
"Eworld is America Online with nicer artwork, no content and no users," said Adam Schoenfeld, vice president of Jupiter Communications Inc., a market research firm in New York.
By limiting itself to the Macintosh community, Eworld makes itself unavailable to 90 percent of the world's personal computing audience. The limited audience also discourages many potential information publishers, who are reluctant to invest in a service that faces withering competition from the Big Three (America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy); from Internet service providers like the Well, the Pipeline and Netcom, and from a formidable array of newcomers including the Microsoft Network and AT&T;'s Interchange.
"They're facing a real uphill struggle against some of the better-funded services," Mr. Schoenfeld said. "It's a crowded field now, and they need to get that Windows interface up and running quickly."
Peter H. Friedman, vice president and general manager of Apple Online Services, said the Windows version would be released in 1995, but he declined to be more specific.
Apple has named Lawrence G. Tesler, its chief scientist, to be Eworld's chief technology officer. Plans for Eworld include such innovations as intelligent "agents" that will filter and sort a user's electronic mail and a text-to-speech technology that will use the Mac's built-in sound capabilities to read the contents of chat forums, using an array of voices.
The Eworld service costs $8.95 a month for four hours of connection time and $2.95 for each additional hour on line.
Although rates have come down significantly since the service made its debut, they are still higher than those recently announced by rivals. Prodigy, for example, offers a plan that reduces on-line costs to about $1 an hour.
While CompuServe, America Online, the Microsoft Network and other competitors are aggressively entering the international market, Eworld charges its foreign customers $9.95 an hour. It is not likely to spread far at those rates.
Eworld is a division of Apple Computer Inc. of Cupertino, Calif. Macintosh users can use Eworld for technical support, with answers delivered within 24 hours.
Eworld software is included with all new Macintosh computers sold in the United States and Canada and is also available free by calling (800) 775-4556.