AppleTalk: A Look Back at the Early Mac Networks

AppleTalk Was the Original Networking System for the Mac

Original Macintosh January 24, 1984
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Ever since the introduction of the Mac in 1984, Apple has included built-in networking support. Nowadays, an Ethernet port or built-in Wi-Fi is not only expected but quite mundane as well. But in 1984, having a computer with built-in networking was a bit revolutionary.

Apple originally made use of a networking system it called AppleTalk, which allowed those early Macs to not only communicate with each other but more importantly, to share what was, back then, very expensive laser printer systems.

These printers became part of the desktop publishing revolution that the early Macs tapped into.

To understand the importance of AppleTalk, and later, EtherTalk, systems that Apple used, you have to go back and see what type of networks were available in 1984.

Network Like It's 1984

In 1984, at least as I remember it, there were quite a few different network systems available. Almost all were offered as add-in cards to the computer systems of the time. The big three at the time were Ethernet, Token Ring, and ARCNET. Even saying there were three networking systems is actually stretching the point. There were various versions of each network, with different communication stacks and physical interconnect media used, and that’s only with the big three network systems; there were quite a few other systems to choose from as well.

The point being, deciding on a network for your computer systems was not a trivial task, and once you chose a network, there was a great deal of work to undertake to set up, configure, test, deploy, and manage a network system.

AppleBus

During the early development of the first Mac, Apple was looking for a means to allow the Macintosh and Lisa computers to share the LaserWriter printer, which by itself, cost close to the same as a 1984 Macintosh. Because of the high cost of this peripheral, it was obvious that the printing resource had to be shared.

At the time, IBM had already demonstrated its Token Ring network and had expected to make the technology available by early 1983. IBM was late in releasing the Token Ring network, forcing Apple to look to an interim network solution.

The Mac back then made use of a serial controller chip to take care of its serial ports. This serial controller chip had some unusual properties, including relatively fast speeds, up to 256 kilobits per second, and the ability to have a network protocol stack built into the chip itself. By adding a bit of additional circuitry, Apple was able to push the speed to almost 500 kilobits per second.

By using this serial controller chip, Apple was able to build a network system that any user could set up; no technology background needed. It had zero configuration requirements; you could actually just plug Macs and peripherals together, with no need to assign addresses or set up a server.

Apple called this new network the AppleBus, and included it with the Lisa computer and the 1984 Macintosh, as well as offered adapters that could be used in the Apple II and Apple III computers.

AppleTalk

In the early months of 1985, IBM's Token Ring system still hadn't shipped, and Apple decided that the AppleBus network could meet the needs of its users while offering a superior network setup and management system.

In fact, anyone could create a network with a couple of Macs, a LaserWriter, and the AppleBus system.

With the release of the Macintosh Plus in 1985, Apple renamed AppleBus to AppleTalk and added a few improvements. It had a maximum speed of just under 500 kilobits per second, a maximum distance of 1,000 feet, and a limit of 255 devices connected to the AppleTalk network.

The original AppleTalk cabling system was self-terminating and made use of a simple three-conductor cable. Much more important, though, was that Apple left the physical layer of the network and the software level separate. This allowed for AppleTalk to be used over a few different types of physical media, including the original AppleTalk cabling available from Apple, but also the much less expensive, and more readily available, PhoneNet adapters, which used standard four-conductor telephone cabling.

In 1989, Apple released AppleTalk Phase II, which removed the 255 network node limit of the original version. Apple also added EtherTalk and TokenTalk network systems that allowed Macs to use the now standard Ethernet system, as well as IBM's Token Ring networks.

The End of AppleTalk

AppleTalk survived well into the OS X era of Macs. This was due to the large installed base of laser printers, and small local area networks that connected handfuls of Macs together. When Apple introduced OS X Snow Leopard in 2009, AppleTalk was officially abandoned, and no longer included in any Apple product.

AppleTalk's Legacy

AppleTalk was an innovative network system for its time. While it wasn't the fastest, it certainly was the easiest network system to install and manage. Before other network systems began to market the idea of zero-configuration network adapters or easy-to-manage network systems, AppleTalk had long since achieved the easy-to-use, zero-configuration status that others now tried to emulate.