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Apple History extra: Apple's history of abandoned cables
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NewsPoster
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May 6, 2016, 07:06 AM
 
A bit under a quarter of a century ago now, I was at the UK press launch for FireWire. It's a cable. I remember sitting in the audience as a speaker explained why I should be thrilled and I remember one single two-foot sample of FireWire cable being passed amongst us journalists. I remember it less because it was a Woodstock moment and more because I looked at this cable having no clue what I should be seeing and instead just passing it on to the next man or woman in the row. I probably said something about how I mustn't hog it all to myself.

It's probably fair to say that FireWire didn't excite anyone at the time very much more than it did me. I wasn't prescient, I wasn't an expert in the finer points of cabling, it was just a cable. Yet people get very concerned about cables and the ports they connect to –– and so do I.



Away from press launches, you only think of cables when you need them and it tends to be that you really, really need them. You've got to get this MacBook Pro working with that projector, you've got to backup a 3TB Fusion Drive and you haven't got all day, that kind of thing. Or you have a pile of hard drives and other peripherals but Apple has just decided to ditch the cables and ports that you've been relying on.

Apple does this. Apple does this a lot. It also tends to do it first: on the good side, this means that you can thank Apple for USB. If Apple hadn't gone for it then it might well have been forgotten and instead it's an industry standard. On the bad side, being first always means pain for people who find they have to buy new cables or new adaptors.

The odd thing is that usually Apple is right: usually the move to a new cable and port is in retrospect the right thing to have done. Not always, but often enough. The odder thing is that when other firms do it, there isn't a quarter as much fuss as when Apple does. Think of the genuine anger when Apple dropped the iPod 30-pin connector and introduced Lightning. The furore was such that other manufacturers cashed in, mocking Apple's one single cable change when some of them had made dozens of such changes.

Once again, if Apple does it, it matters. Once again, though, this is something that runs through the company's entire four-decade history.

Back in the day

When Steve Wozniak designed the Apple-1 computer, the closest thing to a port and cable it had was a set of instructions for where you should solder some wires. That would've been in 1976 and if there was a standard connector around the late 70s, it wasn't on what we then called microcomputers.

Maybe nobody expected us to want to connect anything, like keyboards, but surely nobody expected us to want to connect to networks. Except Apple. Right from the start, the Mac was designed to be networkable and from the start, it had RS-422 serial ports, the more standard DIN-9 from the start, replaced by the Mini DIN-9 round port on the Mac Plus. Maybe it should've had Ethernet but this was enough to mean the company could create the AppleTalk protocol to use these ports and the physical LocalTalk cabling system which was officially introduced in 1985.

It wasn't cheap and I have a memory of crawling through an office ceiling dragging what must've been Farallon PhoneNet cables instead. This was compatible with LocalTalk (and cheaper) and still meant I could connect a Macintosh SE to a LaserWriter printer. That would've been some couple of years after its introduction but LocalTalk lasted a long time: it was only dropped when the first iMac came out. Enterprising inventors still invented a way for that iMac to have a DIN-8 serial port internally, but it didn't last long.

ADB

Long before the iMac, though, Apple had moved on to ADB. The Apple Desktop Bus is well and rather fondly remembered as the way you connected your keyboard, mouse, joystick and so on. What gets forgotten is that ADB didn't appear first on the Mac: it was introduced in 1986 as part of the Apple IIGS. Still less known is that it was designed by Steve Wozniak.



He was always a proponent of the Apple II range but releasing it there first was probably more a case of what the next machine coming out of Apple happened to be. For as soon as ADB was done, it was on the next computer. Later it was also on the NeXT computer. The cables weren't cheap, but in a pinch, you could use a SVHS cable as an alternative to the $40 coiled cable.

Officially, ADB lasted until 1999 in the Blue and White G3 but actually it was later than that: you just couldn't see an ADB cable or an ADB port after that year. Inside the PowerBooks and iBooks, though, it was an ADB system that connected the trackpads. The last of those to use ADB was reportedly released in 2005.

Alchemy

Maybe the reason ADB and AppleTalk on serial boxes is remembered fondly is that it worked. You can't really say that about SCSI. Invented long before the Mac but only really after 1986 used as a standard for fast connections and moving a lot of data around, the Small Computer System Interface on desktop computers is mercifully long gone now.



It did do its job, quite often. You could connect hard drives to your computer via SCSI, you could connect all kinds of peripherals to it. What's more, you could daisy chain those devices so that your one port on the Mac had a device plugged into it but that device had another one plugged in to that.

On paper it made absolute sense and it was certainly faster than just about everything else while it was in circulation, but in practice Mac owners used to end up with mysterious and easy-to-lose chunks of metal that appeared to do nothing –– because they didn't. They were SCSI terminators and you had to put one on the end of the chain of devices or none of them would work. Only, it was alchemy: if you didn't have a terminator then the solution to problems you were having was to fit a terminator –– but if you already did, then the solution was to remove it.

You never knew which would work. I also remember now the legend of Mac users who had black SCSI terminators for the IIfx SCSI implementation that were in some way better at all this. Better didn't mean good, though, so I really should've been more appreciative when FireWire came along.

The FireWire Years

It's really called IEEE 1394 which you'll agree is a far more memorable name than FireWire, and that press launch I went to would've been in 1994. Those were the days. Flowers in our hair, Boyz II Men in our ears, and a two-foot FireWire sample cable in our hands.

Apple developed this in conjunction with an IEEE P1394 Working Group, and you just know they were a fun bunch, but curiously it didn't get a lot of traction even from Apple. The first Macs to use FireWire were in 1999 and even from then to its demise in 2014, it wasn't on every Apple computer.

FireWire was specifically intended to be the replacement for SCSI and strictly speaking its own replacement is Thunderbolt. Only, something else got in the way.

USB

You've got a USB device. The Universal Serial Bus was developed in 1996 by companies such as Compaq, IBM and Intel, but it is everywhere today because of Apple. If you take a look at your iPhone right now, you won't see a USB socket but turn that Lightning cable around: the bit that goes into your wall plug is USB.



It seems as if it always is now, because it always is now. Whatever your device, whatever the connection at the end that plugs into that device, there is USB too. Or more recently, USB 3. FireWire's advantages for fast transfer have been wiped away by UASP on USB 3.0.

The original USB wasn't as fast as FireWire but it was good and it became a standard across every computer and every device so there comes a tipping point: every new device now has to have USB because every peripheral has one. It's a brave company that would walk away from USB now.

Speaking of brave companies

As it did with FireWire, Apple came up with a better name than the others involved in its design: Intel called this technology Light Peak. It was called that because it was going to be based on optical technology but Intel changed it to straight electrical later to save money and also to let the cables provide power to external devices.

Under the name Light Peak, Thunderbolt was demonstrated in 2009 as a system that connected to PCI Express. Later it was introduced on the 2011 MacBook Pro where it was connected via Apple's Mini DisplayPort. That's now changed with the latest Thunderbolt 3 containing USB-C, and the potential of cheaper passive, transceiver-free cables at lower speeds.

The iPod

ADB, SCSI, FireWire and the rest were designed for and used in computers but in 2003 we got something else. The iPod came along and eventually it needed a new connector. At first it was only a physically different one: the Apple 30-Pin Dock Connector didn't look like a USB or FireWire cable but that's exactly what it was, albeit in a new shape and with extra control outputs.



From 2003 to 2011, that was it. The 30-Pin connector was all you needed because it fit everything. Every iPod, then every iPhone, then every iPad. When Apple ditched it in favor of the new Lightning port, there was hell to pay. It was completely unfair as the 30-Pin connector had lasted far longer than the equivalents from other manufacturers, but iPods were special and important and also bought in such numbers that there was a whole world of devices that used the 30-Pin model. You'll still see hotel rooms that have a bedside clock that includes an old-style 30-pin slot for you to pop your iPod in.

It was also unfair because the presumption was that Apple shouldn't ever change that cable because they had never changed it before –– but they had. The original iPod cable included FireWire features but those were dropped over time. Then video came to the iPod so video had to come to that cable. There are different 30-Pin cables and if it didn't cause as many obvious problems as swapping to Lightning did, it wasn't pain-free either.

Now four years on from the change, we're used to Lightning and all those stray 30-Pin cables you used to have around the house have magically become stray Lightning ones instead. Lightning is here to stay – or at least it is for a while. As an added bonus, the thrift stores are absolutely loaded with 30-pin docks now.

Everything must go

People do like to complain that the new MacBook is Apple taking things to extremes with the way that it has only one port. They are wrong. It's got two. The port that time forgot is a headphone jack and that will be with us forever. Or until this September, anyway, depending on who you listen to.

The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the opposite side to the port that reviewers can't forget. That one, the port that everyone talks about, is this USB-C, which is like the old USB but with some significant improvements. I don't think anyone questions that it's better for the long run as this one port is for power, for data, for adding storage devices, for connecting to projectors and monitors. The complaint is that there's just one of them.

So really USB-C is quite the success –– people just want more –– and that means the USB standard is still in play. Just about.

Still in play

USB Is still on the scene in its new guise but it's not the only type of port and cable that Apple still hangs on to. The company has stripped everything back from the MacBook, and that's surely what it is going to do with everything. But, for now, turn around an iMac and look.

You'll see USB, you'll see a token SD card slot for photographers. You'll also see Ethernet, hanging on in there like a trooper, and you'll see Thunderbolt. You'll see them and you'll use them and you'll always wish you had more USB sockets.

Yet after all these years and all these ports, Apple has a good, solid hate for cables. We wouldn't bet against even USB vanishing from future Macs if there were a way to do it. We're going to bet that there will never be another press launch for a wire, like we had in 1999.

-William Gallagher (@WGallagher)
( Last edited by NewsPoster; May 9, 2016 at 08:42 AM. )
     
Inkling
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May 6, 2016, 11:40 AM
 
Apple isn't banishing cables from our lives. It's forcing us to buy adapters that add to the clutter behind our desks and forcing us to take them with us on trips. Apple's artistic mantra, "less is more" really means two things: "Less is more profit for Apple," and "Less is more trouble for users." That's sad. Once upon a time, Macs justified their higher price by including more. Now Macs ship with less but still cost more.
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sidewaysdesign
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May 6, 2016, 11:54 AM
 
"A bit over a quarter of a century ago now..."
"...that press launch I went to would've been in 1994"

Was this article published at least three years too early?

BTW, I think the Apple Display Connector (ADC) deserves a mention. It's the reason my 20" Apple Cinema Display unfortunately requires a DVI converter that runs super-hot all the time. (Remarkably, though, the Cinema monitor still works great after 15+ years.)

ADC was a nice spec with some interesting features, but I guess sticking their name on the format ensured a quiet, lonely death.
     
Mike Wuerthele
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May 6, 2016, 01:04 PM
 
Oh, sure, ADC! Launched with the second wave of G4 towers, and the G4 Cube! I liked it too.

Power, USB, everything, all in one cable.
     
Makosuke
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May 6, 2016, 05:26 PM
 
ADC was pretty much what HDMI became, with the exception of power, so it was a good idea, it just got replaced by something "simpler".

Actually, ADC is more like the predecessor to what ThunderBolt is now--TB carries video, a ton of data, and a modest amount of power in one cable, so you can plug your monitor, your hard drive, or your FireWire adapter into the same port, which is pretty cool when you think about it. If/when TB3 takes off, with a USB3 form factor, you'll also be able to plug a mouse into the same port as your monitor.

Here's one you left out that's more of a port than a cable, but was pretty important for a while in the late 68k/early PPC era: AAUI, which was an Apple implementation of the forgotten standard AUI connector.

During the transition between 10Base-2 and 10-Base-T networks, this was actually pretty fantastic, since it could accept several different network dongles--it meant you could just replace the AAUI dongle on the back of your office's computers to switch from your old thin coax network to your shiny new ethernet network without adding NuBus/PCI cards (which wasn't even much of an option with the Centris 610 form factor).

Amusing trivia: Apple probably wouldn't have created the custom AAUI connector, except the standard AUI port used the same 2-row, 15-pin D connector as external Apple monitors of the era, so it would have been wildly confusing (and might have resulted in broken peripherals if you plugged the wrong thing into the wrong port).
     
Makosuke
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May 6, 2016, 05:31 PM
 
I think it's also worth noting that, while FireWire may have never hit it big, it certainly had a very solid niche, and is still in some use--our office server still has an older FW800 RAID array hosting data connected via a TB dongle, and the older external backup on the Mac I'm sitting at now does the same, and I'm still using DV-via-FW400-to-Thunderbolt to rip ancient VHS and Hi8 video tapes. I also admin an audio analysis workstation (on Windows) that's still using a Firewire audio box for I/O.

It's all legacy stuff, but a lot of FW RAID/audio kit was pro-grade enough that it'll probably remain in use for a while yet, and TB adapters are relatively cheap and easy to use.
     
Steve Wilkinson
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May 7, 2016, 12:18 AM
 
It's been a bit of a sketchy history now and then, but in general yea. For example FireWire was the best, but Apple eventually gave in on USB (and, in doing so, popularized it).

Localtalk and ADB were revolutionary in their time. I was helping manage several Mac networks before most businesses had even heard the term. And, if there ever were a more night and day example of Apple vs the rest, it was there. If you've ever tried to setup IBM Tolken Ring, a Banyan or Novell network, or a bunch of PCs with various network cards, trying to get the interrupt and I/O jumpers set correctly, 'generating' the drivers based on those settings and getting the network protocols to bind... you just don't know what you've been missing!

re: "Maybe the reason ADB and AppleTalk on serial boxes is remembered fondly is that it worked."

LOL, no kidding... SCSI was *NOT* fun like LocalTalk! Although it was far superior for a LONG time until IDE finally passed it up.
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IanS
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May 8, 2016, 10:01 AM
 
A few quick notes:
Calling Firewire a cable is like calling Ethernet a cable. Firewire was far more than this and it is something that Apple worked on for years. Firewire did things that were far ahead of their time, it prioritized data that was time sensitive such as video. It also allowed for peer to peer transfer, this was far superior to USB as it reduced the load on the main processor.

Thunderbolt has not gone away! Yes the cable has changed but Thunderbolt is now a superset of USB. That means you get all the great things from the Thunderbolt 3 spec and all the goodies with USB-C.

As an original Mac 128 user I have seen a lot of cables come and go, but the truth is it was almost never about the cable itself but the improvements that came with new and updated protocols.

Oh by the way does anyone need about 10lbs of SCSI cables?
     
blunted
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May 9, 2016, 04:54 AM
 
FYI: the first iPod used Firewire.

Fun article to read.
     
sgs123
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May 9, 2016, 09:15 AM
 
One thing you've forgetting about FireWire was it was the first and only (until USB-C) to provide serious power (as in 45W -- 8-30V @1.5A).

This made reliable bus-powered external drives of a laptop possible w/o a wall-wart or Siamese USB cables that tried to draw power from multiple ports and failed often.

FireWire was always rock solid and reliable.

----

BTW, one thing you forgot in the SCSI segment: Granite Digital Active SCSI terminators -- expensive, but worked reliably.

Incidentally, SCSI terminators contain an array of pull-up and pull-down resistors which cause the (open collector) signal lines to float to particular voltages. The IIfx had a higher speed SCSI controller that needed a different resistor value in the terminator -- they weren't better, they were different and needed to be matched to the controller. Not sure how much of the "unreliability" was related to folklore.
     
Mike Wuerthele
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May 9, 2016, 09:59 AM
 
Originally Posted by blunted View Post
FYI: the first iPod used Firewire.

Fun article to read.
DIdn't mean to imply that the first iPods used 30-pin. We'll clarify that a bit.
     
DiabloConQueso
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May 9, 2016, 10:53 AM
 
> IBM Tolken Ring

One network to rule them all?
     
Steve Wilkinson
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May 9, 2016, 08:16 PM
 
Originally Posted by sgs123 View Post
Not sure how much of the "unreliability" was related to folklore.
I used to carry several SCSI cables and terminators in my 'case' as I'd often have to play musical swap at client sites to get devices to properly appear. Once it was working, it was pretty rock solid, but getting it working usually involved some incantations and chickens.

Originally Posted by DiabloConQueso View Post
> IBM Tolken Ring
One network to rule them all?
Heh, for sure.
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mooblie
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May 10, 2016, 06:23 AM
 
History should treat FireWire better - it was the de facto standard for digital video<->computer transfer. Any/all digital video cameras (tape-based, anyway) had a "DV" socket ( = 4-pin Firewire ) and it was the ONLY way to capture footage for 15+ years.
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Steve Wilkinson
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May 10, 2016, 10:19 AM
 
Originally Posted by mooblie View Post
History should treat FireWire better - it was the de facto standard for digital video<->computer transfer. Any/all digital video cameras (tape-based, anyway) had a "DV" socket ( = 4-pin Firewire ) and it was the ONLY way to capture footage for 15+ years.
Good point. They usually didn't call it FireWire, but it was. And, USB wasn't as good, just good-enough, I guess, for most things, so it became the more predominate connection standard.
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