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Remembering the early, glorious Mac web

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The former lead editor of Macworld looks back

Jason Snell worked at Mac magazines for 20 years and was lead editor at Macworld for a decade. Now he writes about Apple at sixcolors.com and podcasts at relay.fm and theincomparable.com.

It's hard to believe it now, but in the early days of Steve Jobs' return to Apple, nobody was paying attention. Well, almost nobody.

These days, when Apple announces a media event, the world's press descends on the Bay Area to cover every last product announcement. But when I was at Macworld, we only sent one person to the announcement of the iMac in 1998 — and that was really as a courtesy, since we expected nothing particularly interesting. (Nobody made that mistake again.)

The announcement of the iPod in late 2001 was in the same Town Hall auditorium that hosted last week's iPhone SE and iPad Pro announcements, but back in 2001 there were plenty of empty seats. The whole world wasn't watching Apple back then — but the Mac web certainly was.

Just as Mac user groups and bulletin boards were a key part of Apple's community in the mid-1980s, in the late '90s and early 2000s, the Mac web was a gathering place for the tiny minority of people who loved Apple's stuff. If you didn't live through it, you probably won't believe it, but back then Apple was a tarnished brand coveted by a tiny fraction of computer users who were generally dismissed as magazine designers and cultists.

One of the amazing things about going on the internet for the first time is discovering that you're not alone. All those things that you love, that people think you're weird for loving? The internet is full of people just like you, who love that thing too! In the '90s that's what happened with websites covering Apple and the Mac. We formed a giant user group of people who loved this thing that everyone else thought was irrelevant at best and idiotic at worst: the Mac.

When I got my first job at a monthly Mac magazine, nobody was on the web yet. (I once asked a leading light at Ziff-Davis Publishing if we could put up a website for my magazine, and he told me that "the future is on CompuServe.") Outside of the user groups, the magazines were the only place to find out what was going on with Apple. But the web opened the floodgates, and in short order there was an avalanche of Apple-themed sites. Ric Ford's Macintouch, MacCentral, MacNN, MacRumors, Daring Fireball — they all provided news, rumors, and opinions to a community of rebels and cast-offs who refused to give up and switch to Windows 95.

Those new sites didn't have huge advertisers and corporate masters to serve, like the magazines did. They exuded the spirit of the Mac community, diving deep into niche areas simply because they loved the subject matter. For years, MacWEEK magazine was the Apple rumor source of record, but as it faded away, it was replaced by rumor-centric sites that felt no fear (and oftentimes, no journalistic pangs) about spilling the beans. In those early days, anyone could (and did) put up a shingle and start writing about the stuff they cared about. Some of it was awful, some of it was brilliant. Talented people from all over the world could shine (and did) all without  access to a printing press and a big budget.

At Macworld, I saw this firsthand: MacCentral, a news site started by a bunch of guys in Nova Scotia, Canada, became one of the preeminent Apple news sites on the web. Macworld's parent company bought MacCentral and for many years it far surpassed the traffic of Macworld, a brand that had been covering Apple since day one of the Mac's existence. It was a site fueled on love of the platform and an understanding of the community that only the web could provide.

In the early 2000s, the tone at Apple events started to change, not just because of the growing interest in Apple thanks to the iMac and the iPod. The web was a huge factor, too. At several Apple media events during that period, I was given a very stern look and told that live-blogging was not permitted during the event. (Can you imagine?) I got around the restriction by sending descriptions of what was being announced to a staff writer back at home base, who converted the descriptions into full paragraphs in a constantly updated news story.

Apple eventually gave up on banning live-blogging and, after all the 3G Hotspots brought by members of the press overwhelmed a Wi-Fi demo and infuriated Steve Jobs, the company embraced providing the press with internet access at every event. Still, for years if you brought a camera to an Apple media event you were told to sit in the back row and not take too many pictures or you'd be thrown out.

Today it's hard to imagine that those early days were real. Now everyone cares what Apple does, whether it's to praise or damn it. Live-blogging is so common it's almost a cliché, and these days Apple live-streams its events so most people don't need to rely on a blog to tell them the news anyway. And most importantly, technology and culture — not just Apple, but all of it — has gone mainstream.

Just as the internet has gone from being a place for nerds to hang out and debate Star Trek to a place where most of the world lives, tech companies and products are no longer a strange niche that nobody cares about.

Forty years ago, Apple was a company building computers for hobbyists. Thirty years ago, it was the maker of an innovative computer that was going to have a tough time against cheaper competition. Twenty years ago, it was a cult phenomenon on its last legs, loved by a core group but abandoned by everyone else. Ten years ago it was the resurgent creator of the iPod.

And now? Now we've all got supercomputers in our pockets, whether we use a Mac, a PC, or no computer at all. The web is everywhere. This is the world Apple helped build. Apple's building an on-campus auditorium three times the size of the old Town Hall. Can you imagine what the next decade will bring, let alone the next 40 years?