A happy rendezvous

Sometimes we Mac users don't know how easy we have it. This point was clearly made to me the other day when I lost over an hour (and more than a little hair) configuring a Windows 95 machine to print to a HP LaserJet 4M+ over the network using TCP/IP.

Sometimes we Mac users don't know how easy we have it. This point was clearly made to me the other day when I lost over an hour (and more than a little hair) configuring a Windows 95 machine to print to a HP LaserJet 4M+ over the network using TCP/IP.

By comparison, to print to this printer from any of the Macs all I had to do was plug them into the same network as the printer, go to the Chooser, select the printer from the list that appeared, then print from any application. The maximum configuration time is about 15 seconds on any Macintosh ever made.

This ease of configuration is provided by the magic of the AppleTalk network protocol. Traditionally disliked by IT managers due to its chatty nature and inefficiencies on modern fast networks, AppleTalk has been preferred by users for its ease of use over the more standard TCP/IP.

Because of this preference, some people do not realise that Apple has had a completely usable TCP/IP implementation available for the Mac OS since the eighties. In fact, over the weekend, using nothing but standard Apple system software of the time and no additional hardware, I configured an old Macintosh Plus I had lying around to be an internet citizen via the fulltime internet connection I have at home. While a 9 inch black and white screen isn't ideal for web browsing, the machine is more than usable for email. Not bad for a machine built in 1986 and booting off 800k floppy disks.

In comparison to AppleTalk, the speed and interconnectivity advantages of TCP/IP were just too great to ignore. So, some years ago, Apple began working as a part of the Zeroconf working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force on a set of protocols that would make TCP/IP "just work". Apple's implementation of this set of protocols is called Rendezvous. It is one of the "sleeper" technologies introduced with Mac OS X 10.2.

To duplicate the functionality of AppleTalk, Rendezvous brings the following services to TCP/IP on the local network: automatic allocation of addresses without a DHCP server, automatic translation between names and IP addresses without a DNS server and the ability to search for services (such as a printer) without a directory server. The best part about it is that it does it in an elegantly cunning way that, unlike AppleTalk, does not add greatly to network traffic. While the technical implementation details can be found at www.zeroconf.org and Apple's developer web pages, the reason the technology is so exciting is because of its open nature.

Like TCP/IP allowed any operating system to communicate over the network, Rendezvous breaks down barriers and makes it easy for developers to create cross-platform network-based products that are simply not viable today due to the hassle of configuration for users. To ensure it spreads far and wide as quickly has possible, Apple has even made Rendezvous' source code available for commercial and non-commercial use under an open source licence. Several software programs have already appeared that take advantage of the zero configuration nature of the technology. One is Apple's free iChat, which uses it to create an instant peer to peer chat and file transfer network. Another is iChalk from Math Game House Software, which gives you an instant network-wide digital blackboard. Also from the same company is iStorm, which allows groups of users to collaborate on the same document at the same time.

On the hardware front, the ease of setting up a network printer was demonstrated using a pre-release version Rendezvous at the last MacWorld.

The only real technical step in setting up the LaserJet was figuring out where the power button was. As soon as the printer was turned on, the printer's name appeared in list of available printers in the Print dialogue box. In addition to HP, Epson, Canon and Xerox have committed to supporting this technology with future printers, making configuration hassles a thing of the past. Ah, instant headache relief for IT managers.

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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