Apple's AirPort base stations are gone, and we wish they weren't
After over a year on life support, Apple's AirPort base stations are lurching to a final end. AppleInsider is waxing nostalgic about it, and we aren't very happy.
It's been a long road, and AppleInsider has been on it the entire time. The AirPort launched in 1999 a few years after we did, at the same time as the original iBook G3. Steve Jobs demonstrated the wireless networking technology on the new machine by passing a tangerine iBook through a hula hoop, exclaiming "no wires" as he did it.
The original technology wasn't even Apple's. It was a reworked 802.11b Orinoco Gold PCMCIA card with the antenna protrusion lopped off, with a similar card in a carrier inside the AirPort Base Station. The original base stations were prone to overheating — but they were the only game in town for years.
Within two years, Apple refreshed its entire Mac product line, updating the innards including the ability to add an 11 Mbit Wi-Fi card.
The pricing was revolutionary at the time. The base station sold for $299, with the AirPort card selling for $99.
Two years after the Mac migration was complete, Apple rolled out AirPort Extreme technology, with 802.11g speeds and a design all its own. That technology greatly increased the speed to 54mbps, with many machines released over the next year having it standard.
The Airport Express was born in 2004. With it came an audio jack, allowing users to wirelessly stream music to speakers connected to the device.
Just a few years later in 2007, Apple was one of the first companies to roll out 802.11n draft, which was finalized in 2011. But, in between the draft-N and full-N specs, came the updated AirPort Extreme with 802.11n, plus the Time Capsule — an Airport Extreme base station with integrated hard drive.
The last hardware update came on June 10, 2013, with the AirPort Extreme sixth generation, supporting 802.11ac, with speeds up to 1.3Gbit/sec. The AirPort Express was only updated cosmetically after its 802.11n update, and would never get the faster speeds that 802.11ac provides.
Why did Apple roll out Wi-Fi in the first place?
Apple rolled out two new technologies very close to one another. USB on the iMac and 802.11b Wi-Fi on the iBook. Apple very clearly chose to provide an end-to-end solution for the latter, offering not only the wireless card for a computer, but the router too, for a growing broadband world.
Quickly, networking, especially wireless networking, wasn't just for the enterprise. And high-speed device communication was easy to get into without stringing hundreds of feet of Ethernet cabling through a house.
Plus, setup was easy! Apple's utilities made sure of that, removing yet more friction for adoption.
Apple could make sure that all of their technologies worked seamlessly with the AirPort routers. Users with Apple routers wouldn't need to worry that iTunes downloads would fail because of a router blocking one port or other, or Apple TV problems streaming or synchronization across a network, like some third party routers induced.
Along the way, Apple basically won the mobile wars. As long as a third-party router worked with the iPhone, or iPad seamlessly, then the ecosystem would be fine without Apple curation.
Signs on the road
A few years back, Apple completely overhauled the AirPort setup tool, and lobotomized it, in favor of a simple GUI that could be easily ported to mobile. Many of the features that the tech savvy used to manually control the router were stripped out, in favor of automatic tools.
This set off the normal string of complaints — justifiably so.
After that, it became apparent that the AirPort Express wasn't going to get a hardware update to 802.11ac. It got a physical redesign, but not an improvement in specs.
In the first 12 years, software updates were quick. Then for three years, they were twice a year. For the last two years, they've been annual, and induced by major security problems only.
The beginning of the end
Towards the end of 2016, rumors started flying that Apple's AirPort engineering team had been scattered to other departments within Apple. Discontinuation of the product hadn't yet happened, leading to speculation by some of the faithful that the product was still alive inside Apple.
However, the reality seemed pretty grim. Shortly after the initial reports about the dissolution of the department were published, sources inside Apple not authorized to speak on behalf of the company told us that the AirPort ecosystem back to the 802.11n version of the AirPort Extreme basestation would be made "as safe as possible for as long as possible."
Not a good sign.
Later, Apple started selling the Linksys Velop system in the Apple store, and here we are.
We suspect that Apple saw the writing on the wall for cancellation some time ago, and the formal announcement is being made now because stock levels are low.
Was it the proliferation of third-party routers that ended the line? Was it a situation where Apple thought that the job was done and the market was mature enough with guaranteed compatibility for products for Apple products basically forever?
Was it a financial decision? A need for consolidation of engineers? Who knows. We don't, and can only speculate.
The full reasoning we may never know until somebody's biography is written many years from now.
For most AppleInsider readers, the end of the road for the AirPort may have been a while ago. A year or more. For some of us, author included, we have multiple 802.11ac AirPort base stations blanketing the house with Wi-Fi. For nearly all of us, our first wireless product was from Apple.
It's not just nostalgia for a better day looking back at the history of the AirPort. We were guaranteed that it would just work with everything we had — yes, even the Windows PCs in the house. And, in many cases even through the years of notoriously bad capacitors, they lasted for years, far outlasting third party alternatives.
Revenue from the AirPort isn't even coffee money for Apple, but that's really not the point. There is still be a place for the Airport, but Apple appears to have blessed the Linksys Velop instead.
There are still people wandering into Apple stores, wanting to walk out with one company controlling the hardware, one receipt to save, and one place to get help. But, that avenue is now closed.
They can buy that Velop at the Apple store. But beyond a swap, they aren't going to get more than rudimentary help from Apple. Just ask the first batch of LG 4K and 5K display buyers.
So, for now, when somebody asks you about Apple AirPort, tell them that it was an idea ahead of its time. Show them the Steve Jobs demonstration in all its low-res glory, and tell them it was at the tail-end of the 20th century, way ahead of its time. Tell them it may come back in some form from Apple someday, but not as we know it right now.
Help them find something good. Help them set it up, and help them maintain it — because the obvious choice for them is gone.
And, if you want one new and sealed, you'd better get it soon.