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The Internet Adapter

On various different occasions I’ve seen postings wondering why someone hasn’t written a program to enable graphical programs that normally require a MacTCP-based connection to work with a normal Unix shell account. In fact, a number of these types of programs exist, mostly from large Internet providers such as Pipeline and Netcom, but they generally use a proprietary protocol for talking to the host machine, which means that you can’t use standard Macintosh Internet programs such as Eudora, Anarchie, and MacWeb. Instead you must use the graphical client software provided by the same people who created the proprietary protocol.

I don’t approve of this method of providing Internet access for two reasons. First, and most importantly, this method limits users to a small selection of software for any particular task. With a full MacTCP-based connection, I can choose between Anarchie and Fetch, Mosaic and MacWeb, Eudora and VersaTerm-Link, NewsWatcher and InterNews and Nuntius. In fact, I may even use multiple programs for the same thing – I like and use both Anarchie and Fetch for different types of FTP tasks. You lose that flexibility when you lock into a proprietary solution. Second, the Internet is a vast and fast-moving place, and new capabilities appear all the time, generally supported first, and often best, by freeware and shareware programmers. If you use a specific proprietary program, you can’t use Cornell’s Internet videoconferencing software, CU-SeeMe, play Stuart Cheshire’s wonderful Bolo tank game, or check the weather with Christopher Kidwell’s MacWeather. All of those programs depend on the standard TCP/IP protocols that the Internet relies on, and proprietary programs, useful as they may be, generally don’t give you a standard TCP connection to the Internet.

TIA Basics — Such is not the case with The Internet Adapter, or TIA, from Cyberspace Development (due for release tomorrow). TIA is a relatively small (about 250K) Unix program that you get on the Internet and run on your normal Unix shell account, and it acts as a SLIP emulator. In other words, after you install TIA on your shell account, running TIA turns your shell account into a SLIP account for that session. Although a TIA emulated-SLIP account is not quite the same as a real SLIP account, TIA’s SLIP emulation is completely standard in terms of working with MacTCP-based software on the Mac (or WinSock if you use a Windows machine).

Just to repeat myself, with the addition of a single Unix program that Cyberspace Development sells for $25, you can turn your plain old shell account into a whizzy new SLIP account and use all of the MacTCP-based software. I realize this all sounds a bit like a Ginsu knife commercial (did I mention how TIA can cut beer cans too?), but if the reports I hear are true, TIA should seriously shake up the industry.

Think about it. If a provider charges $20 per month for a shell account and $30 per month for a SLIP account, what response will they have to an individual buying a $25 piece of software to avoid giving the provider an extra $10 per month? Or more aptly, what about providers that charge $20 per month for a shell account but $2 per hour for the use of a SLIP account? Suddenly TIA could pay for itself in thirteen hours of use for the individual, but the provider would lose big bucks. Of course, it wouldn’t be technically difficult for the provider to outlaw (and erase copies of) TIA, but doing that would be horrible public relations and would alienate many users. The most rational approach I’ve heard yet came from a provider who plans to support TIA (providers can purchase TIA for use by all users on a single machine for about $500) and charge a little more for a TIA emulated-SLIP account than a shell account, but less than a real SLIP account.

TIA will become popular instantly at sites that either aren’t commercial or that don’t have much money to buy the expensive terminal servers that make real SLIP accounts easily possible. Since Cyberspace Development sells TIA to individuals, suddenly individual users have the choice of whether or not they get a SLIP account, whereas in the past, if the machine didn’t support SLIP, that was the end of the story. I heartily applaud putting power in the hands of the individual.

TIA Details — Bear in mind that I haven’t worked with TIA personally yet, but it has been tested by many users at a large Internet provider. Nonetheless, here’s what I know about how TIA works.

You do not get your own IP number that uniquely identifies your Mac on the Internet while you’re connected via TIA, as you do with a real SLIP account. Instead, TIA uses the IP number of the machine your shell account is on, and "redirects" traffic back at you (this is the magic part). If you must enter an IP number in some software, any number like should do fine – it’s just a dummy address. The fact that you don’t get your own IP number means that you cannot set up your Mac as an FTP server, for instance, since there’s no IP number for an FTP client elsewhere to connect to.

TIA’s performance is reportedly good, faster than normal SLIP in fact, and about as fast as Compressed SLIP, or CSLIP. Future releases will support CSLIP and even PPP, and will reportedly increase speed by ten to twenty percent. TIA doesn’t create much of a load for the host machine, although slightly more than a real SLIP account, mostly because when you use SLIP, you’re not usually running programs on the host machine, but are just using the network connection.

Installing TIA on your Unix shell account is not a trivial task, since you must install the proper version for the version of Unix running on your host machine. Cyberspace Development has ported TIA to several versions of Unix and more are on the way. If you don’t know what version of Unix runs on your shell account, Cyberspace Development has a simple program that can find out the information for you, or you can look up your provider’s Unix type in a database they are building.

You can order TIA on the Internet itself if you wish, or other mechanisms are available for those who dislike ordering on the nets. For more information, send email to <[email protected]> or connect to <> over the Web or via Telnet, Gopher, or FTP.

Once your order has been filled, with your Unix account, you retrieve the proper version of TIA via FTP, Gopher, or the Web, and then launch it on your Unix account. (You can get an evaluation version and test it for a few weeks – details are in <[email protected]>.) Needless to say, in normal usage, you would script your SLIP program to log in to your shell account and then run TIA to start up the SLIP emulation, but it’s possible to do it manually as well, I imagine.

You can also get various versions of the TIA package, along with installation help and consulting (useful for those of you who aren’t familiar with Unix) from a company called SoftAware. If nothing else, I suspect working through SoftAware will be the easiest way for individuals to buy a complete package and be up and running quickly.

In many ways, TIA is a grand experiment. What will happen when there’s no need for anyone to use a Unix shell account if they don’t want to? We’ll soon see.

Cyberspace Development — <[email protected]>
SoftAware — 310/314-1466 — <[email protected]>

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