RIP AppleTalk

It is eleven years since Apple dropped support for its former networking system, AppleTalk. Although many users confused the LocalTalk cabling originally used by AppleTalk, and the AppleTalk networking protocols themselves, we had at that stage been using AppleTalk over Ethernet for some time. Here is the obituary that I wrote marking AppleTalk’s demise.

One of the joys of buying into a ‘quality’ camera system is that your investment is long term. Although there are limitations in using older Nikon lenses with D100 or D70 digital bodies, you can still use your favourite optics, made long before CCDs kicked celluloid out of cameras. Specialist dealers such as Grays of Westminster do a good trade in older Nikon products, some of which have appreciated in value.

Some time in the future, Macs might become collectible, but keeping vintage Macs running will always be frustrating. With Mac OS X well into its wash-rinse-spin cycle of a major new release every 12 months or so, backward compatibility is getting sacrificed for forward progress. On the casualty list, and ailing fast, is AppleTalk, Apple’s former networking jewel.

Although most assume that AppleTalk is a single networking protocol, in truth it is a complete stack. From Name Binding Protocol, which associated each device on the network with an AppleTalk address, to ADSP’s file transfers, AppleTalk was mature and sophisticated before Ethernet and TCP/IP protocols took off.

Largely confined to Apple systems, AppleTalk has been extensively documented (I gave a link here which is now broken, but documentation is available still in Wikipedia) and is still supported on some non-Mac systems. Running over snail-slow LocalTalk cabling it made the first desktop publishing software talk effectively with the first mass-market PostScript laser printers, and then brought networking to those who could not employ specialist technicians.

But AppleTalk has had its day. The ugly duckling of coaxial cabled Ethernet, prone to cabling glitches and terminator tantrums, has grown into Cat 5 cables, fibre-optic backbones, and switches of seemingly unlimited capacity. Everyone must have an IP address so that they can moan about spam, poor service from their ISP, and the latest Windows infestations. When your networking protocols are built upon TCP/IP, the bedrock of the Internet, they must be cool.

If you want to continue using an old Apple laser printer, this is bad news. It is easy to see why Apple got out of the printer business, as its products often outlast a whole series of Macs, and still keep pumping out the pages. I dread to think of the number of people who must even now be committing their work to trusty LaserWriters of around ten years of age. Cheaper models such as the LaserWriter Select series, in spite of offering PostScript Level 2, did not ship with Ethernet ports, so must have their LocalTalk ports bridged through an Asanté or similar box before they can talk Ethernet.

As support in Mac OS X for AppleTalk gradually dwindles, so it becomes harder to get bridge-printer combinations to work. Some models of Ethernet switch don’t handle AppleTalk traffic properly either, which makes trouble-shooting tougher. Sooner or later you will have to face up to the fact that your printer has obsolesced long before its mechanism has even become slightly arthritic. Its platinum majesty will have to be replaced by some cheap and cheerful inkjet that, whilst it far outperforms the LaserWriter, feels like a one-trip camera compared to an SLR.

On the other hand, Apple’s new networking tricks can be quite natty too. If you still haven’t really got the hang of IP addresses, Rendezvous (now known as Bonjour) is one of those remarkable technologies that normally just works. Trying to explain how it works is altogether tougher, of course. If you have finished the Times crossword before breakfast and fancy something a bit more challenging, then start here (currently active link) and keep going until you have allocated yourself an IP address. It’s a bit like AppleTalk used to be, I suppose.

Gently updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 20, issue 11, 2004.