This is the first in a series (well, okay — two articles planned at this point) on “Guerrilla Networking” products that were designed to provide networkability to non-expandable personal computers.
In my account of trying to drag a compact Macintosh into the 21st century, I mentioned picking up a couple of Farallon Etherwave LocalTalk-to-Ethernet transcevers. I didn’t need them for that project and I have never used them, but I’ve kept them around because I still think they are pretty slick pieces of hardware.
Networking in the late Jurassic PeriodFor those of you who were too young or too disinterested at the time, a bit of background on Mac networking. From the very first 128K Mac onwards, all Macintoshes had two functionally equivalent RS-422 serial ports, named “Printer” and “Modem,” which was pretty much state-of-the-art at the time. But the Mac OS soon incorporated a software protocol called AppleTalk, which integrated ad-hoc networking into every machine. The hardware layer was LocalTalk, a network adapter that connected either serial port to daisy-chain-able, 3-pin-DIN shielded cables. It was an unmatched leap forward for personal computers, and helped justify getting one of those expensive (but networkable) new Apple LaserWriter printers (in turn helping Macs forge a following in graphics shops everywhere).
But those LocalTalk cables were expensive, not very flexible (because they could not be crimped to length), and had no positive detent to keep them positively connected. A company called Farallon introduced PhoneNet connectors, which addressed most of the shortcomings of LocalTalk. PhoneNet cleverly leveraged unshielded twisted pair wiring and RJ-11 jacks: in other words, common modular telephone wires. Brilliant! Suddenly LocalTalk network wiring was cheap, easy to fabricate, and not prone to working loose. Apple’s original shielded cables quickly went away and PhoneNet became nearly ubiquitous in Mac circles.
Enter EthernetBy the time Ethernet had eclipsed Token Ring networks on the PC side, it showed that LocalTalk had two weaknesses: 1) it was much slower, and 2) despite third-party attempts to market LocalTalk PC cards, it was pretty much a Macs-only proposition. Ethernet cards became popular options for expandable desktop Macs with open slots. By 1991, Apple was equipping Macs with built-in Ethernet. But slotless compact Macs and PowerBooks were out of luck. Furthermore, Ethernet had its own drawbacks. Ethernet adapters could only connect directly to one thing: an Ethernet hub — no more ad-hoc, hubless networks, and definitely no more daisy-chaining.
Simplify and Add AwesomosityEtherWave units were designed to emulate the design paradigm of PhoneNet, only with 10Base-T Ethernet. The result was nearly a home run — nearly. Functionally, EtherWave units were amazing. They required no drivers, and they understood MacTCP, so Internet access was easy. Just plug ‘er into the back of a Mac, exactly where that LocalTalk adapter went, then Plug a 10Base-T connection into either of the EtherWave’s twin RJ45 jacks. That’s it — you’re on your LAN. Why twin jacks? Here’s where the Farallon guys blew everybody away: Up to eight EtherWave transcevers could be daisy-chained with no other hardware. You didn’t have to run every length of wire to a central hub. You could hook up two Macs now, and add another to either end at any time. It was a simple thing that took a buttload of electronic know-how to make work.
Survival Of The FittestUnfortunately, two things doomed EtherWave adapters. They were very expensive when new and (more significantly) maxed out at 690 kbps. This was three times the speed of LocalTalk, but still only about 70% the speed of a direct 10Base-T connection.
Farallon did try to leverage the technology by introducing a daisy-chain-able EtherWave adapter that plugged into Apple’s AAUI Ethernet port (built into most 68040 & PowerPC Macs) as well as EtherWave PCI cards. These all ran at full 10Base-T speeds, but as more offices and homes installed dedicated Ethernet hubs and extensive RJ45 wiring, the daisy-chaining feature was less and less worth the premium price.
Farallon became Netopia in 1998, and was later acquired by Motorola.