25 Years of the Mac

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The Mac at 25: Networking

The original Mac was the first mass-market computer to be networkable right out of the box. A popular saying of the time boasted that LocalTalk ensured that “no Mac is an island.”

Today’s Gigabit Ethernet is well over 4,000 times faster than LocalTalk, and even faster Ethernet protocols already exist. The 10-Gigabit Ethernet standard was established in 2002, and compliant hardware is readily available—albeit pricey. A standard with both 40-Gbps and 100-GBps modes is on the horizon.

Just don’t expect faster-than-Gigabit Ethernet on your Mac, because there’s little need for such performance outside of high-end data centers and supercomputing environments. The real action on the networking front today is in the area of connecting to the Internet faster, more reliably, and on-the-go.

For example, Wi-Fi is all well and good, but in a few years we’ll wonder how we ever put up with having to be so close to a wireless access point. Broadband is about to go long-range, with signal distances measured in miles, not feet. The only question is which technology will take us into that future.

The players

The competitors can be broken down into two camps. First, there are those that are evolving from current mobile phone technologies, such as EVDO (Evolution Data-Optimized), HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access), and their various flavors. Then there are the new kids on the block, built from the ground up to be data carriers, such as WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and LTE (Long-Term Evolution).

While EVDO, HSPA, and their ilk are currently about as fast as WiMAX and LTE (on paper, at least), the new guys have more room to grow. WiMAX 1.0, the current version, maxes out at around 60 Mbps; version 1.5 is scheduled to reach 125 Mbps in late 2009, and version 2.0 will exceed 300 Mbps in late 2010 or early 2011. LTE will match those speeds but will lag behind by a year or two.

Which will dominate? According to projections from Intel (a WiMAX champion and chipset maker), the answer is neither. Both will coexist for the foreseeable future, while service providers develop and install the needed infrastructure.

Then there’s traditional wired Internet access, with three major competitors: faster implementations of familiar DSL and cable, and the new wiry kid, optical fiber—namely, FiOS (fiber optic service) from Verizon.

Today’s predominant DSL protocol, ADSL2+, maxes out at around 25 Mbps. The next flavor, VDSL (very high speed digital subscriber line), promises to double that, but it’s not quite ready. DSL, however, is and will continue to be cramped by broadband-limiting phone lines.

Version 3.0 of a new cable protocol with the numbing acronym DOCSIS (data over cable service interface specification) has the potential of 160-Mbps downloads and 120-Mbps uploads. Even better, it’s already being tested in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, with an implementation that tops out at 50 Mbps for downloads and 5 Mbps for uploads, for a cool $150 per month.

Best guess

Our money, however, is on optical fiber. Verizon’s FiOS, for example, is already available in multiple markets for monthly fees ranging from $43 for 10-Mbps downloads and 2-Mbps uploads to $140 for 50 Mbps 20 Mbps, respectively. One reason for our fibrous preference is that optical fiber, being thin and light, is easier to install than cable.

So how fast will your Internet access be, and when? Well, the Fiber-to-the-Home Council has asked Congress to set a goal of universally available 100-Mbps downloads and 100-Mbps uploads by 2015. Our advice: Don’t hold your breath. Your Internet access will get faster, but not that quickly.

[Rik Myslewski has been writing about the Mac since 1989. He has been editor in chief of MacAddict (now Mac|Life), executive editor of MacUser and director of MacUser Labs, and executive producer of Macworld Live. He now writes for The Register.]

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