Looking Back at an Error From an Earlier Era

Recently, Adam Engst posted "A Few Thoughts After 19 Years of TidBITS." It's a wonderful look at how the world of computing has changed over the past two decades. It also led me to realize that I have an anniversary of my own coming up. It was 16 years ago, June 1993, that the first edition of my first book, Sad Macs, Bombs, and Other Disasters, was published.

Okay, it's not June yet and sixteen is not an especially noteworthy number. So why am I mentioning this? Because it is also the anniversary of what is probably the biggest miscalculation I ever made (aside from the money I put in the stock market last summer). Yes, the book went on to become a bestseller and formed the foundation of my career in Mac journalism. And that's the way I usually prefer to think about it. But there is a small dark side to the book, one that Adam's article brought to the foreground for me.

If you scanned the table of contents of that first edition of Sad Macs, you'd likely notice a significant omission: the Internet. Not only is the topic missing from the table of contents, you won't find the word listed in the index either. The only time I even mention anything related to the Internet is on the last two pages of the book, where I briefly mention the concept of going online — to download software or seek technical support from public "bulletin boards." Even here, my focus was on proprietary services (CompuServe, America Online and GEnie), not the Internet.

The book offered no troubleshooting advice regarding online connections. The best I could say was: "Before you can effectively use any of these services, you need to learn how on-line communications work. This means learning how to set up a modem, run the telecommunications software, and navigate around the service. While this is all much easier to do that it used to be, you may not be yet ready to make the necessary commitment. That's fine. Other options are available..."

In other words, don't worry if you are not online. Feel free to ignore it. Being online is a non-significant part of being a Mac user, and likely to remain so.

As I said, a miscalculation on my part.

It wasn't until the third edition of Sad Macs, in 1997, that I finally made the U-turn. At last, there was an entire chapter on troubleshooting the Internet, the World Wide Web and beyond.

What happened? It wasn't as though the Internet didn't exist back in 1993. As Adam's column makes clear, the Internet was alive and growing as far back as 1990, when he and Tonya began doing TidBITS. So why was I so reluctant to get on the train? Three reasons:

  • In fairness to myself, getting online was still a minority activity back in the early 90s. Using a modem was simply too difficult, too slow, and too prone to a variety of headaches. There might not even be a phone jack near your computer. I had to run a phone wire from my "computer room" (also known as our guest room) to my bedroom to get connected back then. Navigating the primitive networking software was tricky at best, impossible at worst. Once online, no one could use the phone for making calls. In fact, if someone tried to call us, it would often bump me offline. And, even when everything was working, I had only a 300 baud connection. I could type faster than my typing would appear on the screen. Being online was not for anyone with even a smidgen of technophobia. In other words, it was not for the target audience of my book. Or so I thought.
  • My miscalculations get worse. To the extent that I was willing to concede a value to online activity at all, it was with online services such as America Online and Apple's eWorld. These were so much more "Mac-like" than the Internet. I was certain that Mac users would reject the Internet for the same reasons they rejected MS-DOS. The Internet was, at best, an arcane world designed for computer geeks that missed working with punch cards, not for the average Mac user.
  • I haven't hit bottom yet. There was a part of me that resented online activity in general and hoped it would not grow. Why? Because I didn't want to be dependent on an online connection to use my computer. I preferred my Mac to be self-contained. If I was going to play a game, I didn't want to need a modem, dial up a connection, log in to some service, navigate to a game area, and hope that I did not get bumped off before the game was over. Neither did I want to worry that the game might disappear tomorrow because the folks at GEnie didn't want to support it anymore. Or that they would start charging an extra fee to play it. It was so much simpler and pleasant to just launch Dark Castle.

But then things changed.

Partly, the online world itself changed. The World Wide Web emerged. With graphical Web browsers, the Internet was suddenly a lot more useful and user-friendly. And pretty to look at. With the arrival of cable modems, online connections became easier, faster and always-on, adding much more versatility to what you could do.

The other part is that I simply recognized that I had been wrong. I eventually made the necessary course-correction. Today, between my Mac and my iPhone, I depend on the Internet for 95% of what I do with a computer. Even when writing this column, I am researching stuff online. Of course, without the Internet, there would be no place to post this column and no audience to read it. The Internet is now essential. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Happily, each day is new chance to get it right.