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Tuesday, August 19, 2008, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Apple's secret "Back to My Mac" push behind IPv6


Why Apple can push IPv6

So far, the adoption of IPv6 has appeared to directly offer users too little to warrant much investment. You can currently search Google via IPv6, or stream video, or access USENET newsgroups, but users won't see any real advantage to do that using IPv6. Without any demand for IPv6, the only reason to upgrade or build out support for it is for bragging rights or progressive humanitarianism.

The China Next Generation Internet initiative spent billions to built out an IPv6 backbone in time for the Olympics. The US government recently announced that 26 agencies met a 2005 mandate to support IPv6 traffic over their networks. Other groups provide access to free content over IPv6 in hopes of spurring adoption. Those efforts haven't done much to actually get a sizable proportion of Internet traffic on IPv6. A recent study reported by Arbor Networks Security found only 0.002% of all Internet traffic used IPv6, and that just 0.4% of the Alexa Top 500 sites use IPv6.

While Apple can't single-handedly transfer the Internet to IPv6, it can provide killer apps that will drive adoption among consumers. That kind of thing is right up Apple's Infinite Loop alley. The company pushed for adoption of the MPEG AAC codec with iTunes and the iPod, upgrading the world from MP3 while preventing the world's music from being locked up in Sony's ATRAC or Microsoft's Windows Media DRM. Most other music players now support AAC as well.

Apple then got behind H.264 video and started pushing hard, even while file traders complained that Apple should just stick with the well known old variants of H.263 codecs used by DIVX and others, or use the proprietary codecs used by Windows Media Video and Adobe Flash. The success of iTunes helped push even Adobe's Flash to H.264, and convinced Google and the BBC to serve their video content to iPhones using standard MPEG H.264 rather than Flash or Windows Media.

Apple, MobileMe, Back to My Mac, and IPv6

Apple's relatively small but high-impact market power has pushed a number of other open standards. So how can Apple push IPv6? One killer app for IPv6 is already being sold: Back to My Mac (BTMM ) works by tunneling IPv6 traffic between machines over the IPv4 Internet using IPSec.

This enables users on systems registered with MobileMe to find services on their other systems from anywhere on the Internet, and then initiate a secure connection between them that works as a Virtual Private Network (VPN), with all traffic being transmitted through an encrypted tunnel that pierces through the permissive Internet. Why Apple isn't advertising this service better is a bit of a mystery. Linux and Vista don't do this, and Google can't offer it as a free service.

In order for BTMM to work, subscribers need to have a compatible router that supports either the convoluted "Universal Plug & Play," or NAT-PMP (NAT Port Mapping Protocol), a system Apple developed and released as an open standard. Apple also sells popular AirPort WiFi routers that support it.

iPv6


IPv6 for MobileMe web apps

A subsequent way Apple could push IPv6 would be to deliver and promote MobileMe's web apps as an IPv6 service. Apple's been getting plenty of criticism for failing to encrypt users' data between its client web apps and the cloud, a notable omission given that it encrypts data between the desktop and the cloud, and between push updates to the iPhone and iPod touch. Why aren't MobileMe's web apps using encryption? Apple hasn't said.

By promoting MobileMe as an IPv6-savvy service, Apple could not only advertise (and deliver!) IPSec security for web apps users, but also have an additional reason to recommend its own AirPort routers which support IPv6 traffic and tunneling through an IPv4 Internet Service Provider. It would also cast an additional halo around Apple's pioneering technology efforts. Add an IPv6 icon to Safari that lights up when you visit an IPv6 site, and Apple would end up with another marketable feature for promoting IPv6 to consumers.

Nobody else sells routers, online services, and desktop computers together, giving Apple a unique opportunity to promote IPv6 in a way that not only benefits the company and users, but would also help nudge the industry toward IPv6 compliance and adoption in the same way that it has corralled the industry's cats into an orderly herd behind H.264 and AAC. It would also help silence the incessant complaints that suggest Apple is indifferent about security or is somehow unable to deliver secure products.