The news that Apple’s macOS Ventura would stop providing guidance (opens in new tab) About how to set up your dial-up modem flooded me with an intense wave of nostalgia that reminded me 32 years ago of the early days of the Internet, email, and that oh-so-classic handshake sound.
Dial-up, the telephone line-based communications protocol for connecting computers to distant computers, and the early Internet, is not dead in a clinical sense. You can still use it to connect your computer to the Internet through a Mac or Windows PC. All you need is a functioning dial-up modem (commonly available on eBay) (opens in new tab)), a telephone line port, the physical telephone line cable and RJ35 connector; (opens in new tab)and a system on the other end to dial in.
With the rise of, first of all, DSL (opens in new tab)than ubiquitous broadband internet (cable and fiber) delivered directly to our homes and offices (and Wi-Fi, of course), nobody does that anymore, right?
When I polled on Twitter asking if someone is still dialing in, 88% said no, 9% replied, “What is dialing in?” and 3% said yes.
Three percent… said yes.
When I asked them to explain, no one gave a straight answer, leading me to believe they were pulling on my chain. That’s fine, they can’t stop me from getting nostalgic about a very specific time in the dawn of computers and connectivity.
1989: It was my first major magazine job, and when my boss and mentor got sick and had to stay home to recover, we all assumed someone else would pick up his significant workload or maybe we’d put it off.
Tom, that was his name, had other ideas. We were an all Macintosh SE/30 (opens in new tab) house and while none of them had built-in dial-up modems, we did have a handful of 300 baud (opens in new tab) (that was the speed then) lying around models that were mostly unused. The big idea was that Tom would take home a modem and his computer (thank goodness those early Macs had handles) and dial into our email system and servers.
Though smart enough to know that this was the wave of the future (at least the current wave), Tom knew nothing about technology. It fell on me, the guy who figured out how to get files from Louts 1-2-3 on a PC to the Mac, to help Tom get it all set up.
It was not easy. Tom had one phone line, which meant I could only talk to him through the installation while he had disconnected the modem from his phone line. I don’t think he had a splitter.
At least we set it up on his and my side. This was, as far as I remember, the first time I heard the classic handshake sound.
We are so spoiled by our instant connections to everything and everyone on the internet. Imagine waiting about 20 seconds for our iPhones or Samsung Galaxy handsets to negotiate an internet connection while listening to them make their own handshake sound. Come to think of it, that would be pretty cool (annoying, slow, but fun too).
That sound, by the way, was a symphony of operations.
As outlined earlier this year by Popular Mechanics (opens in new tab), elk, screech, whistle, tooodle and crack had a purpose. There’s the hello part, negotiation, sound check, modulation, and more. I was especially intrigued by the part that told your phone line to disable echo cancellation and enable full duplex communication. Without the former, your phone line would send your voice through the listener’s handset to your ears in a continuous echo loop. Computer modems can handle that open communication (full-duplex).
Dial-in was a lifesaver in those early days, connecting us in ways that were virtually impossible before. It took us a century of phone calls before we could share data so easily. For over a decade, nothing has been more comforting than the sound of your modem connecting successfully. It preceded AOL’s “You Got Mail” in the mid-90s. (opens in new tab) These were the sounds of our early internet and the igniting of our eventually hyper-connected lives.
Today we have renounced all those pleasantries. There is no hardware to set up. No modems to plug in, lines to use, or requests for anyone to go off the line. There is no pause or waiting. Goods always connected.
Apple is right to end setup support. It and Microsoft will certainly support dial-up technologies on their respective platforms for as long as it makes sense, but I doubt that will last much longer. And then dialing in will be really, sure, and really dead.