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mac.column.ted: Strangled in a Wireless World

mac.column.ted: Strangled in a Wireless World

Ted Landau

Ah, the bliss of living in today?s wireless world. With my AirPort Base Station, I have been freed from the tangle of Ethernet cords that used to emanate from my collection of networked computers and printers. Gone is the need to run Ethernet cables behind walls, so as to avoid unsightly cables along the floor. With my AirPort Express, I can even play songs from my Mac?s iTunes Library on my audio equipment in the next room ? without any wires connecting the devices. My Bluetooth-equipped Mac connects to a Bluetooth mouse completely untethered. My mobile phone ? which wirelessly can call almost anywhere in the world - can also wirelessly send the photos it takes directly to my Canon infrared-equipped photo printer. If I had a Bluetooth phone (which I do not, thanks to Verizon?s policy of striving to bring up the rear in technological innovation), I could even wirelessly sync my phone to my Mac?s Address Book database and iCal calendar.

Yes, it is all so wonderful. Words can?t begin to describe...oops. I just tripped over a wire. One second. That's better. No wait a minute. I am still a bit tangled up here and...uh oh, somehow that other wire got swung around my neck... and...whoa! I seem to be having some trouble breathing. Got to dial 911. Where is my cell phone? Oh, there it is, attached to its charger on the other side of the room. I can't quite reach it. I...I...

...I wake up from this nightmare. Sweating a bit, I get out of bed and take a short walk to the wireless wonder that is my home office. And I ask myself: How come I have so many freakin? wires all over the place?

The problem

How many wires do I have exactly? Glad you asked. I?ve been meaning to take an inventory. So here goes. Let?s begin with the wires that sprout off the central core of my office: my Power Mac G5. For starters, there is the power cord. Then there is the cord that leads to my Cinema Display. Give the Mac a bonus score here. Because I have the older plexiglass display with the ADC connector, the monitor needs only the one ADC cord. It doesn?t require a separate power brick or USB cord. Apple once touted this as a major advantage of its displays. No more. Their newest displays use a DVI connector, and require a separate power brick and cord.

But back to my Power Mac. I have my iPod?s Dock connected via a FireWire cable. And there?s a FireWire cable for the iSight camera. I also have two external hard drives daisy-chained to another FireWire port. Each of the two drives requires their own AC power, and thus each use yet another cord. Next, there?s my still-not-wireless keyboard, with its USB cable. Connected to the keyboard is a USB card-reader (for downloading photos from my digital camera). There is also an Ethernet cord for connecting the Mac to my otherwise wireless network (needed for those times when only a hard-wired connection will permit the needed troubleshooting). Finally, there are my external speakers: a cord connects the set to my Mac, additional cords for the two speakers and subwoofer, and a cord to connect it all to the power brick and wall outlet.

OK. Adding all of this up, we get a grand total of 16 wires: 12 connecting cables and 4 power cords/bricks.

This might seem like plenty already. But we are just getting rolling. I also have an assortment of wires lying around that serve part-time duty. That is, I connect and disconnect them as needed. But I need them often enough that I leave them out all the time. Starting off here is the USB cord for my scanner (fortunately, it draws power from the Mac?s USB port so a separate power cord is not required). I have a digital piano that requires its own power cord plus a USB cable to connect it to the Mac (so I can use it with GarageBand). My Bluetooth mouse uses rechargeable batteries that require a charger that I plug into a wall outlet. Speaking of chargers, the batteries for my afore-mentioned digital camera, as well as for my camcorder, each have their own charging devices. My camcorder also uses a FireWire cable to connect to the Mac (needed when I want to download stuff into iMovie). And let?s not forget the charger for my cell phone. There?s the power cord and FireWire cable needed for my external CD burner. Finally, I have a pocket hard drive that uses a FireWire cable to connect to the Mac.

That adds up to another 11 wires: 5 connecting cables and 6 power cords/bricks/chargers.

Whew! Let?s take a brief pause to come up for air. Ready to continue? OK. Let?s go.

It?s time to tackle my network. I use Comcast for my broadband Internet connection. The cable modem includes a power adapter, a cord that goes to the cable outlet in the wall, and an Ethernet cable that goes to my AirPort Base Station. Of course, the AirPort Base Station requires its own power cord. There is also the USB cable that runs from the Base Station to my Canon inkjet printer (which allows me to share the printer over the network). Plus, the printer itself uses a power cord. I also have a separate HP laser printer. It of course uses a power cord. Plus, to be on the network, it requires an Ethernet cable which in turn runs to an Ethernet hub (which has its own power cord), which is in turn also has a connection to the AirPort Base Station.

Totalling this up, we get another 10 wires: 5 connecting cables and 5 power cords/bricks/chargers.

We?re not done yet. I also own a PowerBook. It requires its own power cord to keep it charged. As an aside, I have a host of additional cables that I use with the PowerBook when I am on the road. But I keep those tucked in the PowerBook?s travel case in my closet. My closet is also where I keep a stash of extra USB, FireWire and assorted other cables?for those times when I need one for a new or borrowed device that did not come with its own cord. Finally, my closet holds my iMotion speakers, for occasional use with my iPod. It requires its own power cord. But let?s keep the closet out of this count. I am gonna stick just with wires I can see by glancing around the room.

So, only 1 cable gets added here: the PowerBook?s charger.

My wife has her own computer, an iMac. It?s connected wirelessly to the network. But it requires a basic minimum of cables: a power cord, USB cables for the keyboard and mouse, and cables for the speakers. She also keeps a USB floppy disk drive attached.

This adds up to another 5 cables: 4 connecting cables and 1 power cord.

Of course, even the most minimal office includes some equipment not directly related to computers. My office has two land-line phones (a regular phone and a fax machine), an answering machine, and two lamps.

Summing this group up, we get another 8 cables: 4 phone cables and 4 power cords/adapters.

And that?s about it. Okay. That?s not really the end. For example, I also have a DSL modem and an IP phone (both necessary for the work I do with Doctor Mac Direct). Plus several other peripheral devices. But I recognize that I have more Mac equipment than the typical home user, so I don?t want to push this too far. So let?s skip everything else and just stick with what we?ve inventoried so far.

What?s the grand total? We have a whopping total of 51 wires in active or semi-active use in my office: 30 connecting cables and 21 power cords/adapters/bricks/chargers!

Is there a solution?

So what, if anything, can be done to reduce this load? There is hope that, over time, most of the connecting cables will vanish. I can imagine, even now, a setup that requires at most 1 or 2 Ethernet cables. And I can imagine, within several years, all USB cables and maybe even FireWire cables being replaced by Bluetooth or some as-yet-to-be-implemented wireless technology.

The more difficult-to-solve problem is all those AC power cords and adapters. Not only are there just so darn many of them (more than 20 in my count), but you quickly run out of available outlets, requiring the purchase of power strips (I have three 6-outlet strips in my office). At some point, you start worrying whether you are just 2 volts away from a house-wide power-failure.

This is all made worse by the complete lack of standardization of power adapters. Every device seem to come with an adapter that is incompatible with every other one you own. And yet, like black luggage at an airport, the power adapters all have a similar appearance. Usually, there is no information on the adapter?s label as to what device it connects with. This means you?ll have to carefully label each one should you ever have to pack up your office and move it (as I recently did). Otherwise, you?ll spend hours trying to figure out which adapter goes with what device. Make an mistake and you could destroy a device (at least that?s the warning in the manuals).

In a similar vein, every device that requires batteries seems to require a different type of battery or (if they use rechargeable batteries) a separate charging unit.

After you acquire enough of these adapters and chargers, your office begins to look like an electrical Tower of Babel. What would make things simpler (as well as eliminating a few wires and adapters) would be some basic standardization, so that the same adapter and/or charger could be used for multiple devices. Even better, it would be great if the amount of power consumed by devices could be reduced so that just one adapter, with multiple ports, would be sufficient for several devices (reducing the number of wall outlets and power strips needed). In the world of science fiction, I can almost imagine a power adapter that somehow connects wirelessly to devices?without endangering those who step in between. But I am not expecting to see this in my lifetime. Perhaps a bit more realistically, how about all of these devices running on micro-thin batteries that last for years (much like today?s wrist-watch batteries)?

Don?t get me wrong. The advances in wireless technology are wonderful. As a prime example, it's great to be able to wirelessly surf the Web with my PowerBook from anywhere in my house. But I can?t forget that behind the curtain of this magic act are about a half dozen or so wires, required to get the wireless part to work. Until we can eliminate those, the wireless office remains, like the paperless office promised years ago, more myth than reality.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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