Last week Apple made official news we’d suspected for a very long time: It’s discontinued the AirPort line of network routers. Apple says once its current stock of supplies is depleted, that’s it. Apple hasn’t needed its own line of networking gear for many years, but let’s remember how truly disruptive AirPort was.
The LaserWriter’s double disruption
To get some perspective on this, let’s set the WABAC machine for 1985.
Less than a year after Apple released the Mac, Apple introduced a groundbreaking product called the LaserWriter. Personal computers and printers had gone together for years, but state of the art was still dot-matrix printers. They were slow, very noisy, and produced lousy-looking copy. Enter the LaserWriter, Apple’s first laser printer.
A black and white laser printer is mundane by today’s standards, but at the time, it was revolutionary. In fact, Hewlett-Packard had only introduced its desktop laser printer a couple of years earlier, for about $12,000. At about $7,000, the LaserWriter was more affordable and more capable. Steve Jobs and Apple had worked out an arrangement to license the then-fledging PostScript technology, a programming language that made it much easier and more cost-effective for computers to produce detailed, scalable images and text. Embedding PostScript in the LaserWriter, Apple kickstarted the desktop publishing market into existence. The other remaining piece of the puzzle came shortly after that when Aldus created PageMaker, the first widely popular desktop publishing application.
Apple introduced another genuinely disruptive technology in the LaserWriter by making it networkable. Computer networking was big and complicated to use, but LocalTalk changed that. Macs and LaserWriters could be connected easily using LocalTalk boxes, creating de facto office networks overnight. The pace of this connectivity accelerated after Farallon Computing released its PhoneNet adapter, a LocalTalk-compatible device that used less-expensive twisted-pair telephone cables.
For many years, Macs and LaserWriters (and then later, many other brands of printers) were networked together in perfect harmony, while PCs and other devices struggled to have any connectivity. Eventually, LocalTalk connectors would give way to Ethernet, whose cost of implementation dropped as more PCs shipped with Ethernet jacks pre-installed.
By the late 1990s, PostScript laser printers were a fact of life in just about every office in the country. While Apple was competing – and losing market share – to Windows PCs, Macs were still the de facto standard in many graphic design and publishing businesses. So just about every laser printer worked with the Mac, and it had become a low-margin market dominated by companies like HP, Lexmark, Brother and others that could compete at scale. That’s not a place Apple was particularly eager to participate, so it dropped its printer line. And it’s never gone back.
Why AirPort Mattered
Coincidentally, at about the same time, Apple saw an excellent opportunity to grow the popularity of the Mac line. It came out with the iMac, a colorful all-in-one computer that radically (at the time) shipped without a floppy drive and included integrated (wired) networking and a CD drive. Building on that popularity, it introduced a new portable computer aimed at consumers and students, the iBook. It, too, was colorful and used many of the same components as the iMac.
Apple saw a great way to differentiate the iBook from other computers by reducing its dependency on being “wired.” While it included a network jack, it also could communicate wirelessly using a then-nascent technology called Wi-Fi. In fact, the iBook was the first mainstream computer to include integrated wireless networking technology.
Wi-Fi wasn’t part of business networking yet, and it wasn’t something you’d find in most houses. Wi-Fi was novel technology still unknown to most people. So it only made sense for Apple to have its own branded networking hardware that integrated well with its products. Just like the LaserWriter so many years before. So concurrently with the iBook, Apple introduced the AirPort Base Station, a bulbous silver device that provided Wi-Fi networking capabilities.
The AirPort Base Station could be managed from the Mac using software Apple developed especially for it, making it an easy soup-to-nuts solution – buy this computer and this box, and you’ll network without wires or hassle.
Apple continued to iterate and change that tech over the years. Eventually, Apple produced the AirPort Extreme Base Station, the Time Capsule (an AEBS that incorporated a hard drive for network-based backups) and the AirPort Express, a smaller version that also made it easy to stream music to a set of connected speakers using the headphone jack.
Since then, of course, Wi-Fi has become a ubiquitous technology, and we’ve seen multiple iterations and changes over the years. These days, most people get Wi-Fi with their cable modem, and for them, that’s good enough. Setup is either done by a tech when it’s first installed or something they’re walked through over the phone with their service provider. But unless you have very specialized Wi-Fi needs, it’s largely become “set and forget” technology that’s no longer dependent on having the right kind of box made by a specific vendor.
In light of that, it’s little wonder why Apple’s decided to deprecate the AirPort line. Apple’s kept them pretty moribund for the past few years, too, with no significant changes to them for years. The AirPort Express was never updated to match the networking speed of its larger cousin. They’ve been hanging on a thread for a long time, and it’s become increasingly difficult to convince buyers that spending extra money for an Apple-branded router is the right call – especially as that cost delta has increased. In that respect, what happened to AirPort routers is the same thing that happened to Apple printers so many years ago. With increased competition filled with low-margin competitors, they’re mostly unnecessary, or too much of a hard sell to really bother with.
I still think that Apple is leaving a hole by discontinuing Time Capsule, but network-based backups have become less important for many people as they’ve grown to rely on the “cloud” to take care of everything. Of course, I’ll argue separately that your data is your responsibility to keep safe, and that you should make local backups and backups to the cloud to be safe, but I admit that I sound more and more anachronistic by the day. For most people, the way they do it now – or the way they perceive their gear to work – is good enough.
So, so long AirPort. A 19-year run is pretty good by any stretch of the imagination, especially in times like these when we measure product cycles in weeks or months as opposed to years. Maybe Apple will find a reason to resurrect the brand in the future. But for now, there’s a wealth of choices from other companies: Eero, Orbi, Luma (on the mesh side), or plain boxes from Netgear and others. Apple’s lasting impact on this market is apparent whenever reviewers look at those products and apply “Apple-like” or a similar euphemism. It means the device is reliable, easy to use, and easy to configure.