Dial-up is dead, but Apple just made it deader - and we still miss it

Dial-up is dead, but Apple just made it deader – and we still miss it

macOS Ventura is dropping dial-up guidance. The news that Apple’s macOS Ventura would cease offering guidance on how to set up your dial-up modem waylaid me with an intense wave of nostalgia that rocketed my mind back 32 years to the early days of the Internet, email, and that oh-so-classic handshake sound

Dial-up, the phone-line-based system for establishing connections between computers and remote computers, as well as the early Internet, are not technically extinct. It still works to link your computer to the Internet using a Mac or Windows PC. A working dial-up modem (widely available on eBay), a phone line port, a physical phone line cable, an RJ35 connection, and a system to dial into at the other end are all that are required.

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With the rise of, first, DSL, then ubiquitous broadband Internet (cable and fiber) delivered direct to our homes and offices (and, obviously, Wi-Fi), no one does that anymore, right?

When I ran a poll on Twitter asking if anyone still uses dial-up, 88% said no, 9% answered “What’s dial-up?” and 3% said yes.

No one provided a direct response when I asked them to explain, which makes me think that they were trying to get me to pull the trigger. That’s okay; they can’t stop me from feeling nostalgic about a particular moment in the early days of connectivity and computers.

1989: It was my first large magazine position, and we all anticipated that someone else would take up his heavy burden or perhaps we’d put it on pause when my boss and mentor became unwell and had to stay at home to recover.

Tom, that was his name, had other ideas. We were an all Macintosh SE/30 house and while none of them had built-in dial-up modems, we did have a handful 300 baud (that was the speed back then) models lying around that were mostly unused. The big idea was for Tom to take home a modem and his computer (thank goodness those early Macs had handles) and dial into our email system and servers. 

While savvy enough to know that this was the wave of the future (at least the current wave), Tom knew nothing about technology. It fell to me, the guy who figured out how to get files from Louts 1-2-3 on a PC onto the Mac, to help Tom set it all up.

It was not easy. Tom had one phone line, which meant I could only talk him through the setup while he had the modem disconnected from his phone line. I don’t think he had a splitter.

In any case, we did get it set up on his and my side. This was, to my recollection, the first time I heard the classic handshake sound.

We’re so spoiled by our instantaneous connections to everyone and everything on the Internet. Imagine if we had to wait 20 seconds or so for our iPhones or Samsung Galaxy handsets to negotiate an Internet connection as we listened to them make their own handshake sound. Come to think of it, that would be kind of cool (annoying, slow, but also fun).

That sound, by the way, was a symphony of operations.

Each shriek, whistle, toodle, and snap served a purpose, as explained by Popular Mechanics earlier this year. The introduction, bargaining, sound check, modulation, and other elements are included. The bit that instructed your phone line to disable echo suppression and enable full-duplex communications particularly piqued my interest. Without the former, your phone line would continuously play back your voice via the listener’s handset and into your ears. However, computer modems might support that open channel of communication (full-duplex).

In those early days, dial-up was a godsend since it allowed us to connect in ways that were before almost impossible. Before we could share data as easily, a century of phone calls had to be made. The sound of your modem connecting successfully was, for more than ten years, the most reassuring sound. It came out before AOL’s “You Got Mail” in the mid-1990s. These were the noises of our early Internet and the spark that eventually ignited our lives of extreme connectivity.

Today, all of those formalities are over. No hardware has to be installed. No need to run connections, plug in modems, or ask others to disconnect the line. There is no waiting or pausing. We’re constantly in contact.

Apple is correct to stop providing setup support. For as long as it makes sense, which I doubt will be very long, it and Microsoft will offer dial-up technology on their own platforms. Dial-up will then be effectively, irrevocably dead.

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