Writing for Bloomberg, Mark Gurman reported last week that Apple has disbanded the engineering group responsible for its AirPort network devices. Some pundits are using this as an example of Apple turning its back on historic customers, but I don’t think it’s quite true. The fact is that the wireless router market has moved much more in Apple’s direction over the years, and these devices just aren’t as important for most of us.
At the time Apple introduced AirPort networking gear, Wi-Fi was still a nascent technology. Apple gradually iterated its AirPort line to the current lineup we see today – the inexpensive AirPort Express, an 802.11n-equipped mini-router with AirPlay streaming audio capability, the faster (802.11ac-equipped) and more capable AirPort Extreme, and its hard drive-equipped counterpart, the Time Capsule. That’s where the product line still is, though it’s worth noting that Apple hasn’t touched any of these products since 2013, with the AirPort Express even further behind.
AirPort products are easy to configure and manage thanks to built-in software on the Mac (AirPort Utility is in every Mac’s Utilities folder). Apple also makes a free configuration tool available for download from the iOS App Store, to help iPhone and iPad users set up and maintain their AirPort products. And in fairness, AirPort products do make life a bit easier if you’re doing things like remotely access your Mac from outside your home network – a feature called “Back To My Mac” – or back up your Mac over the network using Time Machine, the built-in backup software Apple includes in macOS. The AirPort Express is also great if you want to stream music to a stereo system using AirPlay, Apple’s network media streaming tech.
Here’s the problem: Two of those three features I just mentioned are Mac-specific. And while it’s still responsible for generating billions of annual revenue dollars for Apple, the Mac is more and more of a sideline business compared to the iPhone. What’s more, AirPort devices are really expensive compared to the competition.
As I said at the outset, another problem is that non-Apple network gear doesn’t suck nearly as much as it used to. I’ve heard the phrase “Apple-like” applied to the setup and management of a number of different network routers over the past couple of years. It took a while, but even mainstream home networking companies have caught on to the fact that most consumers buying these things are looking for easy setup and as minimal management as necessary – basically plug in and forget.
Finally, the entire home networking market is changing with devices which support “mesh” networking. I won’t get into the difference between mesh networking and how AirPort devices work here, but if you’re interested, there’s a good feature on The Mac Observer which goes into more depth. The bottom line is that mesh networking provides better bang for the buck and more reliable service for many users than what Apple’s gear does.
Ironically, all this comes at a time when J.D. Power & Associates ranked Apple highest among wireless router manufacturers. I wonder if that news gave anyone at Apple pause?
This isn’t the first time that Apple’s walked away from peripheral business that some customers couldn’t imagine the company doing without. Years ago Apple stopped making its own branded printers. In the wake of that decision, Apple also improved support for third-party printers in the Mac operating system. Though it decided to revisit the proprietary route for iOS with “AirPrint” technology, which remains a requirement for printing from iPhones and iPads. More recently Apple stopped manufacturing its own external 27-inch Thunderbolt Display and announced there would be no replacement. Instead Apple’s sending business to LG, which manufactures a larger 5K display with Thunderbolt 3 ports – though it’s in extremely limited release right now.
All this points to Apple consolidating its focus to where it thinks its business is now and will be headed for the future. That’s creating discomfort for those of us who are accustomed to the status quo, but change is inevitable.
I just hope this change is for the better.