America Online may be a good thing for stranded Apple users

APPLE COMPUTER Inc.'s on-line information service, eWorld, is eVaporating, and by the end of the month will be eXtinct. Apple says it will shut down eWorld March 31 and refocus its attention on the Internet's World Wide Web.

Even so, Apple does not want to be known as the company that created 147,000 homeless people in cyberspace. It is encouraging eWorld refugees to migrate to America Online; AOL software will be bundled with most new Macintosh computers, and AOL will develop new software and services especially for Mac users.


But as America Online itself moves closer to the Internet, everyone may wind up in the same place eventually. The exodus of Macintosh users from eWorld will be just a blip in the on-line universe, compared with the growth of the Internet, which adds millions of people a year. It will cause hardly a burp at America Online, which has 5 million customers and adds more than 60,000 a week.

Still, the eWorld diaspora will be interesting to watch as an indicator of the future direction of computer networks. Some analysts contend that the so-called proprietary on-line information networks like eWorld, Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online, all of which require their customers to use unique software, and all of which strive to create unique information resources, are doomed either to join the Web or to be swallowed by it.


These analysts say the Web, which is based mainly on open, nonproprietary standards, has achieved sufficient mass to pull everyone and everything into its gravitational field. They point to the hasty retreats in recent months by the Microsoft Corp.'s MSN network, the News Corp.'s Delphi service, the GEnie service, recently dumped by General Electric Co., AT&T;'s own Interchange service and others, all of which started life as proprietary services but now present themselves as Internet services. They also note that America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy have started Internet-only businesses.

And America Online itself said last week that it was forging closer ties with AT&T;'s new Worldnet Internet access service, which will make AOL available to Worldnet Internet customers at an unspecified discount. America Online, like AT&T;, also endorsed Netscape Navigator, a sign of closer ties to the Internet ahead.

If smart people like Microsoft, AT&T; and Apple are going straight to the Internet, why would eWorld subscribers transfer their allegiance to America Online, which, like eWorld, is the equivalent of a walled community in cyberspace? Why not just sign up with an Internet access provider and wait for the on-line services to come to the Internet, as AOL appears to be doing?

Thousands of computer users ponder the same question every week, not to mention thousands of companies that want to sell goods and services electronically to them.

Gilbert Amelio, Apple's chairman and chief executive, gave his answer last month. "Does the world really need another on-line service?" he asked. CompuServe thinks so. Later this week, the company, which is owned by H&R; Block Inc., will inaugurate a new on-line service, called WOW!, that is designed specifically for computer novices and children. WOW! is for people who want a safe environment and who want never to be more than a few clicks away from customer support.

Those are two good reasons to stick with a simple, one-click, dial-up, on-line service. It comes down to this: If you would feel more comfortable traveling abroad on a tour bus with a friendly and knowledgeable guide, sign up for an on-line service. If you think it might be fun to explore Central America on a bicycle, take the Internet route.

The on-line services say they will survive because people go on line to have relationships. What they are talking about are chat groups and on-line forums where people can type messages to one another, sort of like citizens' band radio with a keyboard.

I find America Online's simplicity to be more appealing than its community. It has bombarded my mailbox with enough Macintosh diskettes to tile a small bathroom; one diskette contains all the software I need to connect to the service. The most complex configuration challenge is filling in a credit card number.


Peter H. Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 3/18/96