The Apple Computer Network

Source: Jef Raskin, "The Apple Computer Network" (11 September 1979-11 October 1979)-- in "The Macintosh Project: Selected Papers from Jef Raskin (First Macintosh Designer), Circa 1979," document 3, version 5.
Location: M1007, Apple Computer Inc. Papers, Series 3, Box 10, Folder 1.

1. Introduction

There are very few potential uses of the personal computer per se in the home at the present time. The question "What do you do with it?" still haunts the industry. While balancing checkbooks, playing chess and writing letters are all viable options, it is likely that a true mass market cannot be supported on the basis of such applications. In the face of this problem, most manufacturers, seeing the hobbyist and technophile markets becoming saturated, have turned to marketing business systems. The business system market is big and legitimate opportunities abound there, but the volume can never be as large as it would be for an item that goes to consumers in general.

There is a feeling in the industry that telecommunications will become a key part of every computer market segment, and this is increasingly becoming so. Many experiments and a few successful services are in operation. Aside from long-standing timesharing systems such as GE and TYMSHARE, we have the ARPA net, Xerox's internal Ethernet, TCA (alias "The Source"), Prestel, the MECC network, and many others. Appendix 1 lists a few commercial services that may be of interest to use. A set of "underground" message centers have come into operation, for example, the PCNET. There are also a few other individuals and small groups that set up a microcomputer with an auto answer modem and some software that allows users to leave and retrieve messages.

According to "Computer Retailer", Radio Shack and Western Union are working out some cooperative venture involving WU's "Mailgram" service whereby Radio Shack computer owners can exchange messages.

It is clear that one answer to the question "What do you do with it?" will probably be: "I use it to send birthday greetings to Aunt Tillie." More to the point there are a number of easily forseen potential uses for a network of personal computers. What is more exciting is that, as has happened with computers themselves, there is the potential for many unforseen applications.

1.2 Possible Application Areas

Many applications have been put forward. Among them are:

Time of day; news (with a boolean query data base); Stock Market (as per what we are already doing); Soap Opera Condensations; A guide to local TV programs (what's on at 9:00 PM? any westerns tonight?); Message forwarding and distribution; Fax transmission (special case of message: the bits are interpreted pictorially); Weather Travel Info; Phone directory; Local, area or national business directory; Apple program distribution channel; Apple update distribution channel; Access to Lockheed's DIALOG or Stanford's BALLOTS systems or similar ones; A better way to answer user questions than a phone based hotline at Apple; Library of Congress card catalog; Program exchange; Educational courses; Educational testing; Voting; Computer program exchange; Advertising; Computer dating; Tax information; Banking (another step to the cashless society (If taxes don't reduce us to a cashless state first)); Access to large data storage for individual needs; Access to computer power (i.e. timesharing); Insurance quotes; Credit information (what is available: what is my status); Market research; Purchasing information (who has the cheapest refrigerator model 34- aa within 10 miles); Plane schedules; Dictionary and Encyclopedia searches.

The list is potentially endless. Most come under one heading: Access to a Data Base. A few come under the heading: Communication. The remaining handful are miscellaneous.

The point of this list is that telecommunications provides a host of answers to the "What do you do with it?" question. What follows is a proposal for supplying customers with this kind of service.

2. Implementation of an Apple telecommunications system

2.1 Some non-technical problems

It is clear that setting up any kind of independent communications network runs afoul of many bureaucratic agencies, and would alarm many companies now in the communications industry. For these reasons alone, it is best to use existing communication channels. The problems of being a user of such a system are probably less than the problems of being in the industry. document M 12 discusses some of the potential problems with being a user of the telephone network.

2.2 Need for prompt and aggressive policy

Apple cannot possibly create the data bases that are required to make this proposal viable. As we have done with Dow Jones, we will have to negotiate access for our users to existing data bases and services. Our success in this field will depend on aggressive and prompt action to secure (possibly exclusive) use (with respect to personal computers) of what we see as the most important services.

2.3 Telephone based system

The most universal bidirectional data path to homes in this country is the telephone. We presently have the technology to provide a low-cost computer with a 300 baud modem. Since the Carterphone decision, access to the telephone network has been assured (as least as much as anything can be assured in the communications field). There are a number of ways of providing a universal service through the telephone.

2.3.1 Many local numbers

The time sharing services have chosen to have many regional centers or data accumulation points. Dow Jones, for example, provides many local numbers. There are some disadvantages to this scheme: it requires publishing a book of telephone numbers, and some subscribers have to make toll calls if they do not live in or very close to a major population center. One advantage of this system is its redundancy.

2.3.2 A toll-free number

With one (or perhaps two) toll-free numbers, every phone in the country can have access to a central computer installation or what I will call an A- node (explained below). This has the psychological advantage of making access to the service appear "free". The number is easily advertised, again encouraging use. Research will have to be done to determine the expected density of usage and just how practical such a system would be.

2.4 Limited or universal access

Can we, or should we try to, limit access to owners of Apple products? If we allow access to anybody with proper equipment (probably any computer or, perhaps, even some terminals) can we legally build in advantages for Apple owners? For example, the only software available will be for Apples. If we use some technological means of permitting only Apples into the service, this would require special hardware and/or software in future products, and might not be retrofittable to the Apple II series.

It is my feeling that access should be universal, with some unique services for Apple owners. Greg Justice is devising an inexpensive modem for 1200 baud half duplex telephone line communications. This might be an Apple exclusive.

2.5 Technical problems

If credit or any other sensitive information is involved, security measures will be necessary. Security problems are inevitable in any case since we wish to bill our customers for their usage of at least some parts of the service. Use of other parts may be paid for by the suppliers (e.g. when the service amounts to advertising) and thus seem free to the user. D. E. Denning, in her article "Secure Personal Computing in an Interactive Network" (CACM Vol. 22, No. 8) suggests a method for implementing security where the users, rather than the network, have control of security. While I question the implementation suggested there, the idea that security can come from the user's side is a good one. Protocols will have to be carefully defined, simple enough for naive users, yet powerful enough to cope with any data base to which we subscribe. There may have to be, as with the PCNET protocols, levels of access from the beginner's character stream to the expert's auto-path-finding data compressed packet. If we are fast enough, the protocols we design may be- come a de facto standard.

2.5.1 Interfacial software

One way of easing the user's problem at accessing the many data bases that exist would be to provide, as we have begun to do for the Dow Jones services, programs that iron out the difficulties of using the various services, so that they all appear relatively uniform and easy to use.

This would become an ongoing software project for Apple, and would represent the least involved method of providing access to data bases. It would not provide a universal message transfer system, however, and thus possibly decrease the desirability of the Macintosh system. It would also not provide a single telephone number for all services, and might require each user to have multiple contracts. Users would not be encouraged to try more services as much as they might if the services were more consolidated. If we adopt this approach, we will have to define a set of unified protocols for accessing data bases--of diverse kinds. This is no easy task, since most of them were designed quite independently.

2.5.2. Establishing A-nodes

The next level up in user convenience from providing software to stand-alone Apples to facilitate access to each data base would be to provide an A-node, or data concentration center or centers. This A-node would be accessed through a single protocol from the user's computer, and then the A-node would initiate and monitor (for billing purposes) the connection with the various data base systems. This process would insulate the user from having to be familiar with each different data base's telephone number and protocols.

The A-node would also be a message storing and forwarding center.

3. Implications for the Macintosh project

This proposal grew out of attempting to answer the "What do you do with it?" question. Without some sort of network/data base service the question is going to be much harder to answer. I am proposing here that the creation of Apple communications, in some form, is part of the definition of the Macintosh computer project.

4. Implications for Apple Computer Inc.

We don't think of the telephone company primarily as a manufacturer of the little $40 things with dials or pushbuttons that we have in our homes and on our desks. The implications of this proposal, at one extreme, is that Apple will be seen, in the future, not so much as a builder of hardware, but as the purveyor of a service that interpenetrates the telephone network, and provides information.

On the other extreme, Apple will be in its present position, adding access to data bases on a piecemeal fashion. Message transfer will not become a useful function unless somebody else happens to start a message system that is universal enough and otherwise meets our needs. I do not like trusting to luck.

The high cost to Apple of having done our early software piecemeal and in an ad hoc manner should act as an example of why we should not let our communications effort be similarly scattered.

The intermediate approach, using the A-node, may be the most practical. At least its requirements are not excessive in terms of hardware or software, and it can start as a mere message center (for the whole United States at first) and then grow as we contract with providers of data bases and bring them on line.

This proposal, if it is carried out, will represent an additional direction for the company. We will not be alone in the personal computer communications field, [but] we can strive to be the best. Certain vested interests may be threatened by an Apple communications system, and there may be unpleasant pressures.

5. Summary

It is my opinion that the A-nodes provide a practical solution to a good portion of the "What do you do with it?" question. If, in the next few months, a clear alternative occurs (such as might be provided by the growth of a company such as TCA) we should consider it. We must do something in the way of providing communication between Apples in locations distant from each other, and communication with sources of information.

Mike Markkula has suggested that this may be an undesireable path in that others will be doing it, and we can use their services. He further suggested that we establish a protocol early on, and publish it in order to obtain a leadership position. I agree with trying to establish the protocols early, and promulgating them, but I think we must also press ahead with a detailed study of the costs and benefits of our own system.

I am concerned that many of the existing services are either too poorly set up, or don't have the breadth of vision required. We may also need growth rates not anticipated by the existing companies. If we do not have a communications network to use, then what will people do with the million Macintoshes we wish to produce?

Appendix 1, Some sources of data bases and communications

Telecomputing Corporation of America 1616 Anderson Road Mclean, Virginia 22102 A service designed for the personal computer user. It is commonly called "The Source". Advertises in Byte.

Computserve, Personal Computing Division 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd. Columbus, Ohio 43220 Tradenamed "Micronet", it is a less ambitious project than The Source. Advertises in Byte.

SDC Search Service 2500 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90406 A commercial service with no special attention to microcomputer users, mentioned here because it has a wide range of services.

The Information Bank 1719 Route 10 Parsippay, NJ 07054 A news service to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week and some 60 other publications. No special attention to micro- computer users.

Lockheed's Dialog data base and Stanford's BALLOTS would be fine candidates, along with our existing Dow Jones service.

All in all, there are many services available. A listing of such services appears in the Applications Directory of The Association of Time Sharing Users, Inc., P.O. Box 9003, Boulder, CO 80301. Almost all the services listed there provide economic, stock and commodity, market or demographic information. The two two most interesting from that list are shown above. Thanks to Tom Whitney for showing me this catalog.

Document created on 4 April 2000;