Remember PowerTalk?

I didn’t. Well, I did, of course, but sometimes memory can’t retain all the details. Especially when it comes to yet another potentially brilliant idea Apple tried to implement, but dropped in a relatively short time frame.

PowerTalk was the later name of the Apple Open Collaboration Environment (AOCE) that was released in 1993 within the System 7 Pro bundle. There is quite an informative entry on AOCE in the Wikipedia, which will help in putting things in context. AOCE was created to solve a series of issues related to the electronic mail and delivery systems of that time, and the solutions it proposed were indeed promising. From the aforementioned Wikipedia entry (my comments are italicised in brackets):

At “one end” of the system, AOCE focused on the underlying delivery and addressing systems, generalizing the e-mail concept so the system could be used to deliver anything from e-mail to word processor documents to print jobs. Addressing was another issue the market was struggling with, so AOCE would offer a single universal addressing mechanism and address book, one that could support not only people’s e-mail addresses, but the “addresses” of things like printers and fax machines as well. These could be looked up in an interface much easier to use than the existing solution, the Chooser.

AOCE would normally store a user’s e-mail on their computer, as opposed to a server. This not only allowed the user to read their mail offline, but also removed the need for a single machine with huge storage space. Small networks could be set up simply by installing the standard “client” software; the machines would discover each other on AppleTalk and communicate directly. AOCE understood that users were not always connected to the network, so outbound mail was cached on the sender’s machine until both the sender and recipient were online. Even on a LAN this would be valuable, as many people turn off their computers at night and the mail would have to wait until the next morning for delivery.

Since the mail was stored locally, users with laptop computers would be able to read and compose mail while on the road. Everything would automatically update the next time they returned to the office and connected back to the LAN. AppleTalk Remote Access, Apple’s “standard” solution for supporting the AppleTalk protocol over modems, was also supported for those users who wished to sync up remotely. [This model can be seen today with services like MobileMe and the so-called ‘Cloud computing’, but it was 1992 when Apple had the idea].

For security over the potentially “open” phone lines, all communications could be secured using RSA encryption and digital signing, even on the local network. Additionally, Apple provided the Keychain, which stored various login credentials in an encrypted file. This allowed the users to use a different username and password on the various systems they used, placing them in the keychain for secure storage. This way they only had to remember a single password for the keychain; AOCE would retrieve the credentials for a particular service on demand. [Keychain has survived and it’s part of Mac OS X].

I’ve found a nicely written breakdown of PowerTalk in the March 1995 issue of a vintage UK magazine called The Mac. In that issue, the main feature was a 16-page special on the then-new System 7.5. The excerpt on PowerTalk I’m about to ‘reprint’ is taken from that special (pages 74-75). It is written by Cliff Joseph. (For better readability I won’t be formatting it with the blockquote tab; the text will be in italics enclosed in two separating lines).






PowerTalk isn’t just a single new feature, it’s an entire system designed to handle communications with other Mac users and with sources of information such as online services.

It’s easy to connect your Mac to a network or subscribe to services such as Cix and CompuServe, but in the past all these different connections had to be handled separately. You might get e-mail delivered to you from several different sources — from colleagues on your office network, from CompuServe and so on — but each set of e-mail would be stored in different parts of your hard disk. The network and each online service will have all their own passwords, and for business users there’s always the issue of security for sensitive information.

PowerTalk provides a central communications system that handles all these different sources of information, stores e-mail and network addresses for all the people you work with and controls passwords and security features.

Other software developers can design their applications to work in conjunction with PowerTalk so that you can share the information and documents you create within those applications. WordPerfect 3.1 supports PowerTalk, for instance, so when you set that program to type a memo you can instantly send that memo to a colleague without having to leave WordPerfect at all. Just select the e-mail option within WordPerfect and off it goes. [RM note: It’s the same thing you would do today using Mac OS X Services feature.]

The following is a quick guide to the main features of PowerTalk.


Rather like a contact management program, a PowerTalk catalogue is simply a collection of ‘information cards’. Each card holds details about a colleague on your office network, or about anyone else to whom you send mail or other types of information. The card stores personal details such as the person’s name and telephone number, plus their e-mail or network address.


DigiSign is a program that allows you to attach an electronic ‘signature’ to a file such as a spreadsheet or memo that you can send to someone via e-mail. Any PowerTalk user who receives that document can then ‘verify’ the signature to ensure that it is genuine. This allows you to authorise documents such as expenses claims electronically, without having to print them out and send them to other departments using traditional, slow mail systems. The verification process will vary, depending on your work set-up. Some organisations may decide to restrict the use of DigiSign so that ‘signatures’ can only be allocated to specific users by a central authority such as the accounts or finance department.

Key Chain

A PowerTalk key chain stores all your different network and online service passwords and access codes.

For example, I have accounts with three different online services, and each one has a separate log-on procedure and its own password. With PowerTalk, I can type all these passwords into a key chain, and give the key chain a single password. By using the key chain I can instantly send e-mail via any of these online services, as all their passwords are stored in the chain and I no longer have to type them in myself. You may need ‘gateways’ to use a key chain with services such as CompuServe or eWorld (see MailBox).


Once you install PowerTalk you will see a new icon appear on your desktop. This icon looks like a traditional In/Out tray, and double-clicking on it will take you into the mailbox, where you can sort through all the e-mail that has been sent to you.

PowerTalk also enables online services such as CompuServe to provide ‘gateways’ that connect with PowerTalk. These gateways connect the service to your mailbox so that any e-mail coming from the service is automatically routed into it. This way, mail from several different sources can be stored centrally, rather than being stored in all sorts of different places on your hard disk.

If you want to send a reply to an item of e-mail, the gateway will automatically direct your reply to the required service without the need for you to go and locate the separate communications program that you would normally use to log onto that service.


This is an e-mail application that allows you to send mail to any user who is included in your PowerTalk catalogue, whether it’s a colleague on your office network or just a friend that you send mail to over Cix or CompuServe. [RM note: So the name ‘Apple Mail’ has quite a long history…]



So, with all these fascinating ideas and concepts, why did PowerTalk fail? For a number of reasons. First, its system requirements, that were a wee too demanding for the Macs of that era. It required at least 2.5 MB RAM, but was really usable with 4 MB. Problem is, 4 MB was the maximum available RAM for Macs in the 1993-1995 years, and RAM was awfully expensive. Plus, it was impossible to use together with QuickDraw GX, another Apple innovative and promising technology of the time, again due to lack of memory. Other reasons included a not-really-thought-of user interface (which is strange, considering that we’re talking about Apple; but perhaps not that strange, since we’re talking of 1990s Apple, heh). The Wikipedia article I already mentioned says it all:

For instance, the addressing system was so deeply embedded into the core of the system that simply typing in a new address was an ordeal. First the user had to click on a button, select the address type, type it in, and then finally click OK to have it appear in the message. Disk usage was also a problem; each message was stored as a separate file, requiring 1k or more of space in an era where 40MB and 80MB disks were still common. Thus a few hundred letters would be enough to fill the free space on the drive. Backing up e-mail was likewise almost impossible as a side-effect of the design; the mail was spread out over the network, some of it remote and inaccessible.

Another annoyance was that the system could not know who a user was, because Mac OS did not require users to log in. Thus documents had to be delivered to a user’s machine. This did not work well when the user had two or more machines, making the concept of a universal mailbox difficult to achieve in practice.

Even the remote access functionality was doomed by feature interaction. To ensure that all messages were delivered in a reasonable time on a network where machines might appear and disappear at random (when they are turned on and off), AOCE had a 15-minute timeout in which it repeatedly tried to deliver pending messages. If the user in question was using a dialup connection on a modem, AOCE would keep the line open for a full 15 minutes before giving up on disconnected user, driving up huge long distance bills to deliver a potentially tiny message.

Many of these problems were intended to be solved with the PowerShare server, which acted as an always-on, always responsive “super-peer”. The basic AOCE protocol would notice these machines when attempting delivery, and send to them first, thereby eliminating the delays and centralizing storage and maintenance. Sadly the server was not ready in time for the release, and did not ship for another year. When it did it was likewise slow and resource hungry, largely a side effect of various features of the Mac OS that made it unsuitable for server applications (not that it was designed for this role).

What’s interesting to me about PowerTalk, anyway, is the fact that it shows how Apple was trying to veer toward a document-oriented approach for its system. PowerTalk was bringing that approach to email services, while the immediately following OpenDoc and CyberDog addressed, respectively, document creation/management and Internet browsing. I plan to discuss these in more detail in the future.

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