The news that Apple’s macOS Ventura fail to offer guidance (opens in new tab) on how to set up your dial-up modem surprised me with an intense wave of nostalgia that took my mind back 32 years to the early days of the Internet, e-mail, and that all-too-classic handshake sound.
Dial-up, the telephone line-based communication protocol for connecting computers to distant computers, and the early Internet, is not dead in the clinical sense. You can even use it to connect your computer to the web via a Mac or Windows PC. You just need a working dial-up modem (widely 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.
With the emergence of, first of all, DSL (opens in new tab)so ubiquitous broadband Internet (cable and fiber) delivered directly to our homes and offices (and, of course, Wi-Fi), no one else does that, right?
When I took a Twitter poll asking if anyone still uses dial-up, 88% said no, 9% responded “What is dial-up?” and 3% said yes.
Three percent… said yes.
When I asked them to explain, no one gave a straight answer, which leads me to believe they were pulling my chain. Alright, they can’t stop me from getting nostalgic about a very specific time in the early days of computers and connectivity.
1989: It was my first big job at a magazine and when my boss and mentor got sick and had to stay home to recover, we all assumed someone else would pick up their considerable workload or maybe we had it on hold.
Tom, that was his name, he had other ideas. we were a whole Macintosh SE/30 (opens in new tab) house, and while none of them had built-in dial-up modems, we had a handful 300 baud (opens in new tab) (this was the speed at the time) scattered models that were not used. The big idea was for Tom to take home a modem and his computer (thankfully those early Macs had handles) and dial into our e-mail system and servers.
Though savvy enough to know that this was the wave of the future (at least the current wave), Tom knew nothing about technology. It was up to me, the guy who figured out how to get Louts 1-2-3 files on a PC to Mac, to help Tom set everything up.
It was not easy. Tom had a phone line, which meant I could only talk to him about setup while he had the modem disconnected from his phone line. I don’t think he had a splitter.
Anyway, we managed to configure on his side and mine. This was, as I recall, the first time I heard the classic handshake sound.
We are so spoiled for our instant connections to everything and everyone on the Internet. Imagine if we had to wait about 20 seconds for our iPhones or Samsung Galaxy handsets to negotiate an internet connection while listening to them make their own handshake sound. On second thought, that would be pretty cool (boring, slow, but also fun).
That sound, by the way, was a symphony of operations.
As described by Popular Mechanics earlier this year (opens in new tab), each, screech, whistle, toodle and crack had a purpose. There’s the hello part, negotiation, soundcheck, modulation, and more. I was particularly intrigued by the part that told your phone line to turn off echo suppression and allow full-duplex communications. Without the former, your phone line would deliver your voice back through the listener’s earpiece and into their ears in a continuous echo loop. Computer modems, however, can handle this open (full-duplex) communication.
Dialing was a lifesaver in those early days, connecting us in ways that were virtually impossible before. We had a century of phone calls before we could share data as easily. There hasn’t been, for over a decade, anything more comforting than the sound of your modem connecting successfully. In the mid-1990s, it preceded AOL “Do you have email.” (opens in new tab) These were the sounds of our early Internet and the beginnings of our hyper-connected lives.
Today, we dispense with all these kindnesses. There is no hardware to configure. No modems to connect, lines to run, or requests for everyone else to get off the line. There is no pause or wait. They were ever connected.
Apple is right to end configuration support. He and Microsoft will certainly support dial-up technologies on their respective platforms for as long as that makes sense, but I doubt it will be for much longer. And then dial-up is really, really, really dead.