Re­quiem for the Air­port base sta­tion

Ap­ple just doesn’t think this way any­more.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY MICHAEL SI­MON

Some­where in my base­ment I have an orig­i­nal graphite Air­port Base Sta­tion. It’s one of the few non-work­ing Ap­ple prod­ucts I couldn’t bring my­self to re­cy­cle, and the rea­son is two-fold. One, it’s one of Ap­ple’s best de­signs. In an age where routers were ugly boxes with gi­ant an­ten­nas, Ap­ple’s curved base sta­tion re­ally did look like a UFO. Even af­ter it stopped work­ing, I kept it on my shelf for years.

The other rea­son is its his­tory. Even more than the iphone, imac, ipad, and ipod, the Air­port Base Sta­tion is, to me, the great­est ex­am­ple of Steve Jobs’s ge­nius. The orig­i­nal Air­port wasn’t a prod­uct for Ap­ple’s power users, it was made for con­sumers at a time when wire­less net­work­ing in homes was a for­eign con­cept. It boiled down com­pli­cated set­tings and con­vo­luted con­fig­u­ra­tion screens to just a sin­gle plug-and-play sys­tem.

As we all know, it wasn’t cheap. It only worked with one prod­uct, the can­dy­col­ored ibook. But even with­out huge sales, the im­pact the orig­i­nal Air­port had on the in­dus­try was im­me­di­ate and mas­sive, at least as great as the ibook it­self. And now it’s dead. And we’ll prob­a­bly never see an­other prod­uct like it from Ap­ple ever again.


In 1999, the ibook ( go.mac­ was a risky prod­uct for Ap­ple. De­signed in con­cert with Lu­cent Tech­nolo­gies, it was as revo­lu­tion­ary and bold as the floppy drive-less imac, and the stakes were just as high. But the ad­di­tion of Air­port upped the stakes con­sid­er­ably. Steve Jobs en­vi­sioned a fully wire­less world be­fore the rest of the in­dus­try, and the Air­port was the first step to get­ting there. The ibook didn’t need Air­port, but Air­port needed a Mac to get off the ground. And Steve chose the most un­likely of note­books for its in­tro­duc­tion.

An easier path would have been to tar­get pro users who were al­ready fa­mil­iar with Wi-fi and ease Ap­ple’s less-in­formed user base into the tran­si­tion. But Steve didn’t want it that way. He un­der­stood in 1999 that wire­less tech­nol­ogy was as per­sonal as com­put­ers were in 1984, and he wanted to show­case its po­ten­tial to peo­ple.

Con­sider this: While the ibook’s price was al­ready pretty high at $1,599, the Base Sta­tion cost $299 and the re­quired Air­port card (which in­stalled by lift­ing up the key­board) was an­other $99, bring­ing the to­tal price of wire­less con­ve­nience to just un­der $2,000. Steve knew that many or even most ibook cus­tomers would prob­a­bly balk at such a high price, but that didn’t con­cern him. The tracks were laid, as he said him­self at the Mac­world New York 1999 key­note: “ibook is the first com­puter ever de­signed right from the start to be op­ti­mized for wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Ob­vi­ously, it wouldn’t be the last.


It would have been easy to tar­get pro users with Air­port, both from prag­matic and sales stand­points. But by de­sign­ing its Air­port to work with a candy-col­ored lap­top rather than its more ma­ture Power­books, Steve was telling the

An easier path would have been to tar­get pro users who were al­ready fa­mil­iar with Wi-fi and ease Ap­ple’s less-in­formed user base into the tran­si­tion.

world that Wi-fi was the fu­ture, and it needn’t be lim­ited to pro­fes­sional users.

Even in 1999, Air­port didn’t de­liver the “baby in­ter­net.” It had a top speed of 11 megabits per sec­ond and more im­por­tantly, it em­braced pri­vacy with full end-to-end en­cryp­tion. That was un­heard of in a con­sumer lap­top. The clamshell ibook didn’t nec­es­sar­ily look the part, but Air­port made it one of the most cut­tingedge prod­ucts in Ap­ple’s ma­trix, and it would take sev­eral months for the rest of the Macs to catch up.

Over the years, Air­port evolved into a full wire­less so­lu­tion that worked with any and all de­vices, but the ease-of-use Ap­ple rev­o­lu­tion­ized with the orig­i­nal Air­port never went away. From the re­mark­able Air­port Ex­press to the in­ge­nious Time Cap­sule, Ap­ple’s wire­less prod­ucts were al­ways de­signed with the con­sumer in mind. It took a com­pli­cated sys­tem and made it easy, a mantra that Ap­ple has got­ten fur­ther and fur­ther away from as it has grown. I mean, just read the sup­port doc ( go.mac­ Ap­ple pro­vides for choos­ing a new router.


It’s been a while since the Air­port was a must-have de­vice, but that’s mostly Ap­ple’s fault. Nowa­days, you can buy any num­ber of routers or mesh Wi-fi sys­tems ( go. mac­, but none of them beat what the Air­port was. The Orbi ( go. mac­ satel­lites I have around my house are ex­cel­lent, but I still have an Air­port Ex­treme Time Cap­sule

hooked up to the one in my of­fice for back­ups. And when­ever I need to dive into the Orbi con­fig­u­ra­tion page to check some­thing, I lament the loss of my Air­port Util­ity.

Ap­ple could have made a Wi-fi sys­tem that “just works” and com­bines the all-over cov­er­age of a mesh sys­tem with the simplicity of Air­port. But it stopped play­ing that game long ago. To­day’s prod­ucts are more about fill­ing a cat­e­gory than a need, and I can’t imag­ine Tim Cook ever green­light­ing some­thing as risky or revo­lu­tion­ary as the Air­port-ibook combo any­time soon. Visit www.ap­ wire­less now, and it takes you to a 404 page. The revo­lu­tion­ary vi­sion that was so strong in 1999 is lit­er­ally miss­ing.

It’s not about the de­cline of the Mac or the use­less­ness of the Touch Bar, or even the ter­ri­ble­ness of the Macbook Pro’s key­board. It’s about a long-term vi­sion that just isn’t there any­more. Prod­ucts like the iphone X, Ap­ple Watch, and even Homepod are all built to sell now, but where will they be in 10 years? Ar­gue about fea­tures and de­sign all you want, but the vi­sion Steve de­liv­ered with Air­port just isn’t there. The iphone X may rep­re­sent the start of the next 10 years of the iphone, but Ap­ple’s over­all vi­sion is de­cid­edly my­opic. It’s the same rea­son why it’s taken Ap­ple years to de­liver on its prom­ise of a new

Mac Pro. It’s not be­cause it doesn’t have the team or the re­sources, it’s be­cause the vi­sion of the ex­ist­ing Mac Pro was so short-sighted, Ap­ple had to scrap the whole thing and start from square one.

Air­port wasn’t just a foun­da­tion to grow on, it was the first step in a decades-long plan that de­liv­ered the ipod, iphone, and ipad, and freed us of wires and teth­ers. So maybe I’ll go dig it out of my stor­age boxes. Be­cause it might take a while be­fore we see any­thing quite so vi­sion­ary from Ap­ple ever again. ■

The ibook was the orig­i­nal break­through in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tor.

Net­gear’s Orbi is a great sys­tem, but it doesn’t have the same ease-of-use as Air­port.

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