Saturday, April 28, 2018 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Apple Officially Discontinues AirPort Router Line

Zac Hall (MacRumors, Hacker News):

Apple is officially exiting the wireless router business and selling off its remaining inventory of AirPort products. This includes the AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, and both models of AirPort Time Capsule.

[…]

So why discontinue the AirPort line today and not sooner? That’s unclear, but Apple’s formal announcement confirms what was already largely accepted: the AirPort line is dead.

Why indeed, if it’s true that the team was disbanded years ago. This feels like the situation with the Mac Pro (also last updated in 2013), where Apple seemingly stopped working on improvements and let it languish, until it finally decided whether to cancel the line. Was the strategy to keep selling a dead-end product at full price until the money stopped rolling in or their offering became too embarrassingly behind? If there was any chance they wanted to stay in the router business, you’d think they would have been working on the next version as soon as the 6th generation shipped. Apple has a strong track record when it rolls. Any time it stops is a bad sign.

Wi-Fi is somewhat analogous to printers in that Apple needed to help get a new technology started in the market. In time, there were lots of good printers to choose from, but then the market regressed. After buying a number of terrible printers from leading brands, I kind of wished Apple were still making them. (Then I discovered Brother; it turns out its printers are OK.) Printers are not strategic these days, so not having a great one doesn’t hurt Apple; it’s just a minor missed opportunity for differentiation.

How much do routers matter now? I would argue that Wi-Fi is more strategic now than printers were when Apple discontinued them, and that there’s more room for innovation. First, all of its devices depend on Wi-Fi, so it’s an unavoidable part of the product experience. In theory, Apple could offer more reliable hardware and make sure its products are the first to support new standards, even drive those standards. At least this once was the case; by the end, Apple was late patching security flaws in its own routers. But at least it patched them, and I bet more customers were able to update than with many other brands.

An Apple committed to routers seems like a good fit for Tim Cook’s security and privacy vision. Apple is the company that keeps its old devices updated with the latest software. Apple is the company that you can trust with your privacy. But with AirPort dead, I’m now using a Google Wi-Fi. (I wonder why Google chose to enter this market around the time Apple disbanded the AirPort team.) Google Wi-Fi is easy to use and works well, but I don’t really like that it’s tied to my Google account and controlled from the cloud. Eero, from what I’ve read, also requires an account and relies on the cloud. And, unlike Apple, neither offers a Mac app for configuration.

Even after Apple stopped being a market leader, I think there was value in offering an easy, trusted solution. Instead, Apple now offers a very basic guide with the comforting disclaimer: “Information about products not manufactured by Apple, or independent websites not controlled or tested by Apple, is provided without recommendation or endorsement. Apple assumes no responsibility with regard to the selection, performance, or use of third-party websites or products. Apple makes no representations regarding third-party website accuracy or reliability. Risks are inherent in the use of the Internet.”

Then there is the question of the features AirPort offered that its replacements don’t: AirPlay, printer and scanner sharing, file sharing, Time Capsule. Bluetooth is more widely supported than AirPlay, but I don’t think it’s better or easier to use. With no way to connect my printer to Google Wi-Fi, I ended up buying a new one that has Wi-Fi built-in. I’m not aware of any alternatives that make file sharing and Time Machine backups as easy. Directly connected USB drives are inconvenient for laptops, and there aren’t a lot of great online backup solutions available, either. It seems like Apple is just forfeiting some Mac advantages.

I think there’s no doubt that discontinuing AirPort makes the Mac/iOS networking experience worse, at least compared with what it could be if Apple kept the line updated. So the real question is, what are we getting in return? Was keeping AirPort updated a major distraction for the company? Are good engineers so scarce that Apple needs them working on another project?

Previously: Apple Comments on AirPort’s Future, KRACK: Breaking WPA2 by Forcing Nonce Reuse, Apple Abandons Development of Wireless Routers.

Update (2018-05-01): M.G. Siegler:

If Apple wants to get out of the wireless router business — a business they helped kickstart — fine. The problem is that they could have — and I’d argue, should have — been fundamentally changing this business for the better, in a way basically no other company can.

[…]

The bottom line matters. But it’s not the only thing that matters. Apple has surfaced a rather disturbing trend of late of looking right past any strategic implications of their product lines. They’re not only too far in the forest to see the trees, they’re seemingly chopping down said trees to get a better line of sight. It’s really weird.

Rosyna Keller:

Now that Apple has discontinued the Time Capsule, is there an easy alternative to backing up to a network device?

Specifically, a standalone device that supports Time Machine and can only be configured by an app, NOT a website…

A Time Capsule replacement doesn’t need Wi-Fi (just RJ-45) but when Time Machine says “flush to physical disk” it had better do a synchronous flush to physical media…

Does such a device exist? A device without kernel extensions to install?

Halp.

Josh Centers (TidBITS Talk):

Some people seem shocked that I rent a router. When you consider that a good router starts at around $150 these days — Wirecutter’s current recommendation is more than that — and that a router generally lasts about 3–4 years, I’m paying less than $150 every 4 years for a commercial-grade router that will be replaced for free if it malfunctions.

Benjamin Mayo:

For a few years, I had been repeating the same ultimatum when people asked about the fate of the AirPort product range: update it or kill it. At least, this AirPort announcement means Apple has finally divorced itself from one of its skeletons in the closet.

Peter Cohen:

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.

[…]

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.

See also: Rich Stevens.

Eric Slivka:

The tri-band Velop system is a bit pricey compared to some other options on the market, but it works well, providing strong coverage throughout your home and offering features such as guest networking, parental controls, and device prioritization.

Jason Sims:

Sad to hear AirPort has been discontinued. I just added an Express to extend my Extreme and don’t regret it. Even in maintenance mode, AirPort Utility is so much nicer than the shitty web config of most other APs. Hope they at least keep it working.

Eventually I‘d like to move to mesh, but there’s no Eero in Japan. Orbi is an option, I guess, but they’re big, ugly, and massively overpriced. AirPort really is exactly what I want/need at home (less-than-ideal powerline Ethernet bridge notwithstanding).

David Sparks:

For the last year, every time I went into an Apple store and saw the Airport on the shelf, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the person who was going to buy that without knowing they could get a much better network with a non-Apple product. I figured Apple was either working on their own mesh solution or they were going to abandon the product entirely.

Update (2018-05-04): John Gruber:

I’m not saying Apple should continue to make mere Wi-Fi routers. I’m saying they had, and missed, an opportunity to make really smart, trustworthy home hubs like nothing else on the market.

Update (2018-05-08): See also: Background Mode, The Talk Show.

Update (2018-05-14): Eric Schwarz:

I went from an AirPort Extreme (the flat, 802.11n model) to an Asus router that had great performance, but had some firmware bugs and had the dead-space-bug look. If anything Wi-Fi needs gigantic antennas, why do almost no enterprise-grade (where functionality is paramount) access points have ten antennas sticking out?

After my day job featured a few projects involving wireless bridges from Ubiquiti Networks, I started looking into their other products. While the interface was web-based, the attention to detail felt like it was there, and the hardware was very Apple-like. It’s not surprising, as their founder and CEO, Robert Pera, got his start on Apple’s AirPort team. I decided to look at their other products for work, and after installing a few UniFi access points in some locations, have been very pleased with the result.

20 Comments

When you have a heterogeneous environment, most of these "Apple platform advantages" are often rendered moot as the non Apple devices cannot always take advantage of some or all features offered. Case in point, while printer sharing should work cross platform and drive sharing probably does too...you can't even manage your AC AirPort/Time Capsule with Windows devices (as far as I can tell, AirPort Utility for Windows stopped at version 5.6.1 and it doesn't work with AC devices
https://support.apple.com/kb/DL1547?locale=en_US) and no models of AirPort are supported on Linux devices, Android phones/tablets, etc....

AirPort Utility as value added controller would be an excellent idea, the fact there's no way to tweak your settings without an app is stupid. If I can expound for a moment on this specific point. I've owned quite a few routers over the years. For several reasons really. One, it's part of my job to familiarize myself with this market; two, I support friends'/family's networking setups as well and three, it's become a bit of a hobby of mine to experiment with consumer networking gear. While hardware will get purchased depending on a host of criteria given (client, location, price, etc), I've settled on a couple hard rules:
First rule: Must have web based management option, otherwise instant "no buy".
Second rule: Strong preference for devices compatible with alternative firmware.

While rule two is not an instant "no buy", it is still important as you never know when your vendor will drop support....I have owned Apple gear in the past, and these limitations were part of the reason I moved on from it:
A. Buy router, computing platform changes and now I have no easy way to manage device.
B. Buy router, needs change over time, Apple doesn't add new features to support such needs.

Honestly, besides Time Machine support and AirPlay, what do these Apple networking devices really offer as differentiators? In my own use, I never grokked the importance of the former, given Carbon Copy Cloner is a better option for most serious users, especially once Apple added "versions" to apps, making rolling back document changes no longer require a visit to Time Machine. I can see the usefulness for average users, but I am hesitant to say I've ever known an iPhone, iPad, or even most of my Mac users to ever buy an AirPort or Time Capsule. Shoot, most stick with their combo FIOS/Cable/DSL boxes these last several years. AirPlay is a killer feature honestly, but limiting it to the AirPort Express keeps the market penetration inherently small. I understand why Apple doesn't add the DAC to the larger models, but it does make the need to pay $100 for an Express on top of the likely need for investment in a larger AirPort model a pricey value to dollar evaluation.

While the DAC not being included on AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule was somewhat understandable, the lack of general features on the larger models was very strange. No Wireless to Ethernet Bridge (the Express has ProxySTA allowing this mode to function), no USB tethering for iPhones, no QoS, and....there's a whole list really, but that's a decent enough place to start. The Express was frustrating as it can't do drive sharing, never gained AC support, and was likewise unable to tether an iPhone for Internet access. Well, now we don't have to worry about such concerns....I suppose that's a silver lining. :)

I don't think the AirPort models are the worst networking devices by any means, but rarely were they great. Generally not best in class, generally not least expensive. Yet, they were decent, well rounded for average use, home networking devices. Too bad the general Apple non iPhone release pattern befell the Airport line -- solid specs and decently priced when released, but the hardware would become outdated and the prices would likewise cease to remain particularly competitive as hardware aged, development finally stagnating to point of unofficial abandonment as the years dragged on and on and on. At least Apple decided to finally end the suspense this time unlike with the Mac mini and Mac Pro lines....

https://twitter.com/stroughtonsmith/status/989630011895369728
Steve Troughton-Smith's tweet from one of the linked Twitter threads in the OP is very strange. Reposted text below:
"One of the great things about AirPort was that when Apple introduced a new wireless standard, sometimes before anybody else, you could virtually instantly upgrade all your home infrastructure with it without waiting for third parties to decide whether they want to implement it 😪"

What does this even mean? Apple doesn't introduce new Wireless standards....or else they weren't standards to begin with. 802.11a/b/g/n/ac are not Apple specific things. Let's just say Apple brought something to the table with their AirPort routers, how would you instantly upgrade your home infrastructure with a new protocol without buying all new gear? Older Airport Extreme Macs used to have industry standard mini PCI WiFi cards, but even older model 802.11b Airport devices most certainly did not and later model Macs don't have industry standard parts either....

Can someone parse the text for me, I'm so lost here.

Tried, Netgear, ASUS, Dlink, Tp-Link, Linksys, Belkin. I think all these combined would be 70% of world wide market shares?

Apart from one or two top end Model in those brands, none of them had the stability of Apple's Airport, none of them had the ease of use of AirPort.

Many models would crash every now and then. Slow down every now and then, doesn't even work with you have more then 4 - 5 people using WiFi, some overheat and crash if you do have Air Con in summer.

Only Apple Airport had all these sorted out. The only possible criticism is that is WAN is limited to 3/400Mbps, its wireless performance isn't top notch, which I could care less, and no mesh support. But mesh isn't even a stvndleise thing anyway and 802.11ax will hopefully fix that.

And how would I trust any other brand for security and privacy purposess.

I was hoping one day Apple TV would have the router function integrated.

>What does this even mean?

I think there were cases in the past where Apple shipped hardware and software that supported new (or in-development) wifi specs before most other vendors did. And because Apple controls a lot of the devices in a lot of people's homes, it could do that without creating compatibility issues (caused by inconsistent interpretation of in-development specs by different vendors).

Adrian Bengtson

"Honestly, besides Time Machine support and AirPlay, what do these Apple networking devices really offer as differentiators?"

The – by far – easiest setup process. At a time when router setup was more or less a pain in the ass the setup of AirPort Extreme could not have been simpler, thanks to the integration with macOS. Which is exactly the experience Apple could and should offer to users who are not interested in details and just want something that work. (Want to extend the network with another router. Just turn in on and your Mac will prompt you with a suggestion to extend current network. Still amazed of how easy that was.)

But, aside from that, I have to second what Ed wrote.

I spent a decade using wifi routers from almost all popular consumer brands and the all sucked more or less. Yes, AirPort Extreme was twice the price (that was the reason I stayed away from it for so long) and I didn't even use Time Machine or the AirPrint feature. Still it was worth it just because of the stability. The ease of use was a bonus for me, I could handle the more technical setups, but I was so tired of reboots and troubleshooting bad wifi. AirPort Extreme solved that for me.

@Ed Yes, the sheer unreliability of other brands I tried was amazing: both crashes and early deaths. (So far, Google Wi-Fi has been solid, thankfully.)

@Lukas Right, and then because it was Apple you could count on them to update the software on both ends once the spec was finalized.

@Adrian Yep, and AirPort is not twice the price of the newer mesh products.

I've observed that most households that I've been a guest in over, say, the past ten years, have tended to use WiFi directly from their ISP's router. I would expect that's easier to deal with than to have another box for that purpose that you have to configure separately, no matter how easy that configuration process is.

I mean, for various reasons, I disable the ISP modem's WiFi and use a separate WiFi router, which was an AirPort until very recently, but it's still a separate box to maintain. Even the AirPort would require an occasional restart.

+1 to stability & continual, easily applied updates. @Michael Good to know Google's is stable though.

+1 also to Time Machine. Easy setup and then your computer backs up automatically when on your wifi network. Even when your computer is asleep! Great for non-techies. And still v useful in conjunction with cloud backups (messy experience if recovering from a hosed drive) & local backups (hassle to maintain). But who knows, maybe Apple will make iCloud Time Machine.

All that said, I agree with @Chris. Clearly ISP wifi routers are good enough for most people. Even the crappy config interfaces don't really matter when the ISP sets everything up. And the high end tech market cares more about the specs & features @Nathan pointed out. So maybe it's not that Apple needed to put AirPort engineers on other projects, so much as that the market for the Airport became too niche?

I'll miss it though. Particularly AirPlay. Bluetooth audio continues to be annoying as hell.

>So maybe it's not that Apple needed to put AirPort engineers on other projects,
>so much as that the market for the Airport became too niche?

I don't think Apple has anyone to blame for that except itself. Apple stopped truly improving AirPort products years ago, and they stopped adding compelling user-facing features even before that. Why is there no AirPort base station with built-in AirPlay speakers, for example? Apple could have shipped something like that a decade ago. They did not.

Obviously, if your wifi product is pretty much the same as the one people are getting for free in their routers, there's no reason to not just use the free one. So you have to make your product more than just a slightly better version of the thing people already get for free.

@Lukas Yes, even the last few hardware updates were disappointing. And they never even restored the old features that they removed when they brought the iOS version of the configuration app back to the Mac.

Oh, something else just occurred to me: unlike other Apple products, the new AirPort base stations are designed to be hidden.

I remember the first AirPort base station I got. It had that cool UFO shape, and even came with wall mounts, and it had colorful lights that blinked through the case, so you could hang it up for people to see, like a weird little work of art. It was designed as a conversation piece.

Then, Apple introduced the smaller, utilitarian AirPort Express base stations that looked like power adapters. Like the Express base station, all of the new base stations are designed to be hidden away somewhere, which is not a good look for Apple products. Why pay for the Apple logo when you don't even see it? If Apple doesn't want to compete on feature set or price, the *least* it has to do is compete on coolness. Make something that people are proud to display, not something designed to be shoved under the sofa.

FreeNAS makes a reasonable networked Time Machine, not as easy as an Apple solution, but...

@bob But I don’t think that supports the special Time Machine filesystem calls that Rosyna mentioned.

I wrote very similar thoughts on why Apple *should* reinvent home networking (as they would put it). Privacy and security are a huge component, as are harnessing the power of their ecosystem.

Just to clarify, this is what the old Airport Utility that everyone thinks was great looked like from 1999-2011(ish):
https://tidbits.com/resources/2007-08/airport-password-asst.jpg

We are sure this is easier to use than just opening up a browser and connecting to your router? Yes, the new Airport Utility is more streamlined, but not as flavorful when it comes to features.

Also, just to clarify, I've never had an Airport Router come ready to use out of the box, maybe the AC models got that feature, but nothing earlier had them. However, I have used other routers that had 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz properly configured (WPA2 AES Personal with a decent length key even!!!!) and even the web GUI was streamlined for basic setup if you needed to tweak something. Some GUIs even recognized mobile devices and reflowed the setup GUI to take into account small screen sizes. From an out of the box experience, I would definitely argue a router pre-configured with sane defaults (often accompanied by a printed, glossy, color, picture walkthrough) is much more user friendly than an app. Furthermore, some of these routers have their own proprietary utilities if you really want to use one and for the more technically inclined, you can use telnet/SSH to configure settings on the command line (yes, Techie focused).

In Airport land, if you are like me and no longer have a Mac nor iOS device, but do have a single Windows system, I can configure an Airport router with Airport Utility (but not the AC models, because the Windows Airport Utility doesn't support that model, sorry for repeating this gripe). However, it requires using the old interface I linked to in the beginning of this post. So it's not really any easier than a well designed web GUI.

While I don't want to use Airport Utility, it wasn't that hard to use either, so I will give it props for being not terrible to use. Maybe not perfect, sometimes odd Apple terminology aside, but solid, and generally explainable to other people. As I mentioned, many routers have much improved web interfaces (most devices after 2010 or so certainly), but my current firmware of choice for my main routers (RT-AC68U) is DD-WRT. While I love a lot of things about DD-WRT, it still has a bit of the mid 2000s Linksys look to it. Features aren't hard to find necessarily, but it definitely feels like there's more clicking than should be necessary to configure everything. Click, save, apply, repeat a lot! And the modal secondary dialogue windows, perish the though I need to see two of these at the same time! :) I much prefer Gargoyle or Advanced Tomato from that standpoint. While Luci on OpenWRT isn't much better, but OpenWRT definitely supports alternative GUIs.

As far as general reliability, excepting the early Time Capsule models and some of the power brick Express models (overheating and bad caps respectively, well, to be fair some of the UFO models had bad caps too...) the Airport line has generally been reliable for me as well. No jive. Big respect there. My two Airport routers were sold after five or so years of solid use and I sold both for a decent amount given their age.

Also, from a reliability standpoint, DD-WRT is great when you find a solid build, but technically the main releases from the primary developer are all betas....and as such, there will be bugs. Kong builds are more solid, but I've had problems there as well. More so than Gargoyle, Advanced Tomato, or even OpenWRT, assuming you stick to stable releases for those three firmwares. I never had the same issues on the Airport firmware, it was more a lack of features that bugged me.

Also, I will concede, with all my alternate router firmware adventures, I just bricked one of my Asus RT-68U models (restored after taking it apart and connecting a USB to TTY serial cable....yeah, not hard, but not regular user friendly either....). I can say that I've managed to bork an Airport router's installation where Airport Utility decided not to talk to it, but a factory reset via button always brought me back. There's certainly something to be said for the solid in all areas, but master of none approach to the Airport lineup offering reliability, consistency, and decent enough performance.

Honestly, if Apple had simply given me a non Airport Utility app way to manage my Airport devices, I'd likely still have those devices in use. Not by me, as I need a very specific setup to make things work, but my mother, or other users in the family could have managed very easily. In fact, my mother did use some of the Airport devices until I started getting rid of the last of our Macs. I simply couldn't keep the devices running because of the app requirement. Oh well....

Ps Sorry Michael, I think my comment kind of drifted off a bit, but I hope someone finds it useful nonetheless. I have used a lot of consumer routers and mobile hotspots and I don't offer my opinion lightly. Dreadfully boringly perhaps, but not lightly. :)

As far as software updating specs:
To be fair to the other manufacturers, to be certified with draft 802.11n, you had to commit to offering a spec update to your devices once the 802.11n specifications were finalized.

Michael Brown via PCWorld

You might recall that the first 802.11n routers hit the market in advance of the IEEE’s final ratification of that standard. But there’s a key difference: Back then, the Wi-Fi Alliance ran a certification program that not only assured consumers that all 802.11 Draft N equipment bearing the Wi-Fi logo would operate together, but that those devices would also be compatible with the final 802.11n standard. The Wi-Fi Alliance is not operating such a program for gear based on the 802.11ac draft standard, so you’re on your own.

I do remember Apple offering a WPA update to 802.11b Airport card later in their life, so that's cool as well. However, it was buggy, lot of forum posts complaining it wouldn't work (router communications perhaps, problems with TKIP vs AES with WPA/WPA2 mode or maybe 802.11b/g perhaps????) and required a paid update to 10.3 or later to enable. To clarify, the firmware update was free, but the operating system was not, I think Panther cost $129 at launch.
https://web.archive.org/web/20080224231015/http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=107795

Finally, there were the 802.11g Airport Extreme cards in early Intel Macs that could be unlocked for 802.11n with a firmware update. Yet, again, this cost money, you either had to pay $1.99 for the Enabler or buy an 802.11n Airport Extreme Base Station for $179. The cool thing, was you only had to pay the Enabler fee once for all your compatible Macs.

Again, while it is good Apple supported these updates, they were often paid support updates. Not quite as clear cut as suggested.

Oops, forgot the link from Tidbits explaining Enabler and Base Station. Sorry.
https://tidbits.com/2007/02/05/apple-ships-802-11n-base-station-and-enabler/

Jonathan Nemo

Speaking of the disbanded AirPort team, Rob Newberry left Apple in 2012, ended up at Nest in 2013.
https://www.linkedin.com/in/robnewberry/

Granted, there are many, many Apple to Nest/Google/Alphabet departures, especially to Nest around that time. But that one was a bit amusing, in seeing AirPort product development stop right about when he left it.

I wonder how often that happens at Apple.

Oh yeah, I've heard the same story a few time. Where an app or product is languishing and the talk of the town is the single person (!!!!) in charge of it has moved to a different product or left the company altogether.

For example:
Apple Remote App story via iMore

Thank you Jonathan Nemo for the link and reminder!

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