Apple's AirPort base stations are gone, and we wish they weren't

Posted:
in General Discussion edited April 2018
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.

Linksys Velop

Why now?

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.

What 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.

Apple AirPort Extreme


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.
dewme
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 79
    rob53rob53 Posts: 1,950member
    WiFi routers are like PCs, they constantly change without any real reason. Those Velop mesh stations aren’t exactly inexpensive, something Apple haters complained about AirPort costs all the time. I read mesh stations need to have line of sight between stations, or at least minimum walls, to work properly. That’s difficult in many houses so I’m not that excited about moving to them. I had two AirPort Extremes connected via an Ethernet cable and they ran great. Easy to configure and they just worked. 
    propodracerhomie3dysamoriawatto_cobrajony0Alex_V
  • Reply 2 of 79
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,435member
    If I have to turn to third party solutions for my local network, doesn’t that make it even easier to turn to other parties for phones, tablets and computers?
    fbickingdysamoriaaylkAlex_V
  • Reply 3 of 79
    jdwjdw Posts: 664member
    In 2017 I purchased a TP-Link WIFI Archer C7 from Amazon because it was recommended by Macworld magazine (I'm a subscriber).  After some hellish setup, I got it to work, but Netflix wasn't working.  After searching the web and dealing with support in vain, I gave up and shipped it back to Amazon for a refund.  I then jumped on EBAY and bought the newest version Airport (white tower version), only because a used router is cheaper and looks aren't so important when you're going to hide the thing anyway.  Setup was drop-dead simple.  It works with Netflix.  And I've not had a problem in the world since then.  It therefore is very sad that Apple has gotten out of the wireless router business because people like me can't figure out non-Apple routers!  And no manner of Choosing a Wi-Fi Router tips from Apple will help.  Some of us need an Apple-branded router, even if expensive and funny looking, to help lower our blood pressure levels and make things JustWork!
    edited April 2018 racerhomie3dysamoriacornchipwatto_cobraAlex_V
  • Reply 4 of 79
    rob53rob53 Posts: 1,950member
    entropys said:
    If I have to turn to third party solutions for my local network, doesn’t that make it even easier to turn to other parties for phones, tablets and computers?
    No, because almost all WiFi routers are sold by companies that don't make computers, phones or tablets. Apple was the only company that supplied everything (except for cable and DSL modems). Samsung is the only company that supplies networking devices but they also sell refrigerators, microwaves, and washing machines, in other words, everything. This doesn't mean anything they sell is good, it just means they are a huge company that makes all sorts of things. Networking equipment is supposed to follow standards, meaning they are supposed to work with all standards-based networking hardware. That doesn't mean they do but with Apple hardware, we knew things were going to work properly. Now, we need to educate ourselves on network ports and protocols to make sure the things we're used to doing still work with new hardware. 

    If Apple wanted to keep an Apple branded WiFi router, they could with minimal effort. They'd just have to contract with Linksys (originally Cisco, now Belkin), Netgear, or one of the newer companies and create software, or at least a configuration overlay, that mimics (and enhances) the original AirPort software so Apple users would have something that could depend on. 
    StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 79
    I've been hoping Apple TV would become the WiFi router. With the release of HomePod, I think it is natural to include WiFi router build into smart speakers, and have Apple TV and HomePod work in concert as the new Apple branded mesh WiFi network. An entry level HomePod? perfect!
    mcdaveDavidAlGregoryMisterKitcornchipkirkgraywatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 79
    Routers generally have become really good. It’s a device that once setup you generally forget about. I recommended Apple’s routers to my parents for long because they were easier to setup and maintain, but the last few years other brands made their products easier and better as well. Up to a point where I found the browser management approach to trump Apple’s. 
    Also NAS solutions like Synology and Apple’s focus on cloud services made their their routers less unique as time progressed.

    Apple made a good decision to drop this product range. There is no added value anymore, even though their products are still good.
  • Reply 7 of 79
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,435member
    I think it is shortsIghted. A comprehensive Apple digital hub/ecosystem would have to be a great selling point.
    A cheap, lower price airport express replacement optimised for third party speakers or just an extender. A puck.
    Linked into a router mesh network complete with local backup tailored not only for phones, tablets, computers, speakers and TVs but also HomeKit devices. that a ten year old can set up.
    Apple easy configuration of course. Remember that? Thing is, a competitively priced ecosystem would make it more likely people will buy homepods and Apple TVs don’t you think?

    it is this sort of neglect that killed off the Thunderbolt Display and the embarrassment that is the Mac mini and the MBA.
    edited April 2018 cottonthePrtdysamoria
  • Reply 8 of 79
    SoliSoli Posts: 8,435member
    Reasons why I'm not giving up hope just yet:

    • WWDC  is right around the corner.
    • Much higher pricing of mesh routers would appeal to Apple from a business standpoint
    • Users seem to understand (better) the need for a quality, powerful, and secure router system
    • The most popular players in the market have considerably less expertise than Apple
    • There are a lot more Apple customers today than when they started offering routers
    • The general market for routers is much higher than it used to be
    • Apple has a leg up due to the customer trust that they've earned.
    edited April 2018 Hyperealityanantksundaramcornchipwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 9 of 79
    neebongneebong Posts: 12member
    I remember buying my first Airport and Airport Extreme card for use with my iBook when i bought my flat many moons ago. 
    Expensive, but probably the best purchase i made at that time, but well worth it. Worked brilliantly.

    Cant say so much about the first Airport Express tho, it was great for what it was, but after about a year you couldnt use it for Airplay since it skipped so much..
  • Reply 10 of 79
    ...I'm hoping for a new product announcement after earnings report next week...?

    I'm also hoping it has nothing to do with anything cloud based (privacy), has nothing restricted to 'onboard' non-user upgradeable anything, and maybe adds a faster access bandwidth than USB2...

    I've still got a 2008 (among others) running silently under a desk, and have been hoping there might be a compelling new product, with kudos to Apple hardware build quality... Maybe the Time Capsules will appreciate, like the discontinued (Mr Cook) quad core mini that may be worth more than a new replacement (arbitrage) in short order...? Ha ha...

    edited April 2018 cornchip
  • Reply 11 of 79
    viclauyycviclauyyc Posts: 324member
    Soli said:
    With WWDC around the corner, the much higher pricing of mesh routers, users that seem to understand (better) the need for a quality, powerful, and secure router system, that the most popular  players have much less expertise for than Apple, and with a lot more people being Apple customers and in the market for routers I’m holding out hope.
    Dear Soli,
    You are on every post!
    Sincerely 
    V
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 79
    any recommendations?  something easy to setup like Airport's with user friendly UI interface?

    oh.. and Apple..... ^@%^&(^[email protected]$%@#$%!!!  that's all i got to say about that.
    cornchip
  • Reply 13 of 79
    SoliSoli Posts: 8,435member
    jeff_cook said:
    any recommendations?  something easy to setup like Airport's with user friendly UI interface?

    oh.. and Apple..... ^@%^&(^[email protected]$%@#$%!!!  that's all i got to say about that.
    Well, you can get a current AirPort Extreme now if you hurry. Then there's the Linksys Velop options they sell in the Apple Store. Amazon always lists great options, which one are most popular, and you can see the customer ratings. For a more general review site you can check out The Wirecutter's website to see which routers are best for a variety of setup types and user needs.
    racerhomie3
  • Reply 14 of 79
    I am seriously worried this is the end of AirPlay.
    I know this is not Apples intention, but I think they did not consider that this is the major AirPlay device besides Apple TV but that is limited to screens. I know many people that like me have music in every room via AirPlay, now that one has too look for a new roaming router (and has to replace the whole network as others are not compatible) AirPlay will disappear from homes and be replaced with something.
    The end should have come when Apples replacement Linksys or others already offer mesh + AirPlay or at least after AirPlay 2 is working well in most devices or at least when HomePod is spread enough or at least is working well enough.

    It simply came at the worst possible moment!
    tokyojimu
  • Reply 15 of 79
    I haven't had wifi troubles in about 5-10 years with third party routers. That wasn't the case at all until about 2010, when the linksys,belkins, etc would have trouble making and keeping a connection. Where I did have a problem was with Time Machine. Just a few years back I bought an Asus ( https://amzn.to/2r58B91 ) router that supported time machine (since dropped it looks like). It worked fine for Wi-Fi, but about every 6 weeks my mac would say the TM backup was corrupted and it had to start over. Not something that made me feel secure about my backups! I got an Airport Extreme and hooked up an external USB disk after that and it's been running 2+ years without an error.
    racerhomie3cornchipwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 79
    Soli said:
    Reasons why I'm not giving up hope just yet:

    • WWDC  is right around the corner.
    • Much higher pricing of mesh routers would appeal to Apple from a business standpoint
    • Users seem to understand (better) the need for a quality, powerful, and secure router system
    • The most popular players in the market have considerably less expertise than Apple
    • There are a lot more Apple customers today than when they started offering routers
    • The general market for routers is much higher than it used to be
    • Apple has a leg up due to the customer trust that they've earned.


    Would Apple go out of the way to say that the product line is terminated if they were going to do something in that space?

    Why wouldn't they simply ride the wave of silence for another 5-6 weeks?

    muthuk_vanalingammike54dysamoriaGeorgeBMacStrangeDayscornchipwatto_cobraAlex_V
  • Reply 17 of 79
      I replaced our Apple router about six months ago.    I’ve used every model Apple ever made.

    Now I like the CradlePoint AER1600 router  because it provides automatic fall back to cellular data upon loss or failure of the fiber optic WAN.

     Wi-Fi coverage is great on the LAN slide.   Fall over is about two seconds on the WAN side
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 79
    rob53 said:
    WiFi routers are like PCs, they constantly change without any real reason. Those Velop mesh stations aren’t exactly inexpensive, something Apple haters complained about AirPort costs all the time. I read mesh stations need to have line of sight between stations, or at least minimum walls, to work properly. That’s difficult in many houses so I’m not that excited about moving to them. I had two AirPort Extremes connected via an Ethernet cable and they ran great. Easy to configure and they just worked. 
    I will stick to my 2 Airport Expresses & future AirPort Extreme until they stop working.
    jdwcornchip
  • Reply 19 of 79
    zlydenzlyden Posts: 20member

    I still have the first generation of Airport Express that works great as AirPlay connection to sound system (it never was very reliable as a router).

    That makes me wonder if I should jump and get the last generation of Airport Express while supplies last and use it for next 10 years? 

    Probably not. I just remember too well what happens when Apple drops support for your device in AirPort Utility. That is: you should keep ancient PowerBook somewhere in the house just in case you want to configure the router… :smiley: 

    dysamoria
  • Reply 20 of 79
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member
    Why now? I think it's because 5G LTE celluar is starting to come online and Apple is skating to where the puck is going. 5G really is a massive improvement over current cellular technology.
    tenthousandthingscornchip
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