Ah, the humble wireless router: a staple of the internet age, something we’ve all hidden somewhere in our homes (or worse, in plain sight). It’s a pain, a thing that sometimes just needs to be restarted for no apparent reason, the errors of which can be mystifying, and the troubleshooting and management of which can make even the most tech-savvy among us cringe. .
It shouldn’t be like this. Once upon a time, Apple made wireless routers. The AirPort line debuted in 1999, at the same event where Apple introduced the iBook, the first consumer computer to offer built-in wireless networking. Over nearly more than a decade, Apple made a succession of devices, until it finally discontinued the line in 2018.
And now, more than ever, it’s starting to feel like it could have been a mistake. It’s too late? Could a resurgence of AirPort save us from dealing with inferior routers? Or are we doomed to a future of annoyance and irritation?
The dawn of wireless
One of the things that made the AirPort line great is that it came to the pinnacle of Apple’s much-vaunted approach to technological simplicity. At a time when most people were just getting online and Wi-Fi was in its infancy, Apple’s AirPort was a quick and easy way for consumers to get up and running, without having to know a lot about networking.
I had an AirPort Extreme in my house for about a decade as my only wireless router, and during that time I hardly ever had any problems with my connection. Thanks to its app-based management system, I didn’t have to deal with janky web interfaces (although it did have its weaknesses, like a very slow reboot that seemed to be necessary even with the most minor changes) . And the AirPort Extreme packed a lot of power and functionality into a device designed with Apple-branded elegance, a box that didn’t offend if placed under your TV.
While much of the AirPort line was certainly expensive at the time, the prices are hardly ridiculous by the standards of today’s wireless routers, which can often reach $150 or more for a top model. of range. And the reliability that came with the AirPort was well worth the cost, considering the “set it and forget it” nature.
Alas, Apple’s entry into the wireless router market was not meant to last. As with other markets the company once competed in, such as printers and monitors, routers had become a staple, with ever-lower prices and many alternatives from companies that seemed to be considering networking as their main activity. On the other side, ISPs have increasingly pushed their own routers, bundled with their service, and often combined with a modem, and many consumers have taken the path of least resistance.
The last AirPort produced by the company, the AirPort Time Capsule, featured the Wi-Fi 5 standard (formerly known as 802.11ac) which is still widely used today and was released in 2013, five years before the company officially pulls the plug. line.
These days, you can always find used AirPorts and Time Capsules, even on Amazon, and I’ve been highly tempted every time I have a problem with my current router. But the hope is eternal that Apple can reconsider its decision to exit the market and see the benefits of building a new AirPort that matches and even exceeds what it offered before.
Why not fi?
One of the reasons Apple is returning to the market is control: wireless technology has become an even more essential part of Apple’s ecosystem. After all, most of its devices rely on Wi-Fi, and Apple is a company that really likes to control the whole experience, from soup to nuts. A growing number of smart home gadgets now support Thread, a feature that Apple itself has integrated into its HomePod mini and its latest Apple TV.
A major change that happened soon after Apple exited the wireless router market was the advent of wireless mesh systems aimed at consumers. These use multiple access points to cover a wide area with a seamless Wi-Fi network – think products like Eero, Ubiquiti and AmpliFi. These products cost more, but they’re also meant to be simple and hassle-free, exactly the kind of market Apple often excels in.
Additionally, Apple has an opportunity to set itself apart from competitors by providing a privacy-focused device that helps users avoid tracking on any of their devices, perhaps by integrating something similar to iCloud Private functionality. Relay that it debuted in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey.
Gordon Mah Ung
There is also a chance to improve the state of the art in design. So many popular wireless routers look like they were made by Batman, with sharp, angled edges and antennae pointing every which way. Mesh systems tend to be a little more aesthetically pleasing, which also has a functional benefit: you won’t try to hide them in places that might not be beneficial for distributing a wireless signal throughout your home.
In short, there’s still opportunity in this space, and it’s an opportunity that, technologically, in design, and in privacy, seems, if you’ll pardon the expression, to fit in exactly well with the technology that ‘Apple does the best. . Although I don’t have much hope for the company to return to the market, I can only dream. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to restart my router again.
Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he started contributing to the MacUser blog. He is a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incidentcoming in July 2022.