Monday, March 11, 2024

How AirPort Changed Everything

The Serial Port (via David Kopec):

“No wires.” This simple phrase from Steve Jobs during Apple Airport’s debut in 1999 contained more than a decade of history behind it. Follow along as we chart the perilous and unbelievable journey of wireless networking, and hear from the people that were there during it all.

Apple got them to reduce the cost of the AirPort card from $1,500 to $50 and then sold it for $99. The AirPort base station initially didn’t work because Jony Ive had selected a metallic paint, which created a Faraday cage.


12 Comments RSS · Twitter · Mastodon

And now there is no AirPort. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, but the available equipment is still complicated to use, buggy, privacy-invasive, and its retail pricing for comparable quality screams fashion statement instead of necessity. Apple's choice to get out of the router market was and is stupid.

I don't miss Apple's Airport devices at all. From my experience owning them.

Initially they couldn't even be managed with iOS because there was no Airport app at first.
Then once the Airport app was released on iOS, Apple crippled the Mac app to behave exactly like the iOS version. Losing some killer functionality.
Do you like managing old devices until they stop working? Too bad, newer versions of Airport Utility would kill support for older devices. Buy a new Airport sucker!
Do you like managing your router from any device you own? Too bad! Only works on some clients, Mac, iOS, and Windows. On that last one, it only kind of works on newer versions of Windows and I don't think it works with the AC Airport models at all!!! No Linux, no BSD, no Android, no game consoles, etc.
Do you like a base level of security out of the box? Too bad! At least up to the last N devices (not sure about the AC gear, aka Wifi 5), the initial setup was accessible by open WiFi. Very nice for business and apartments, let me tell you!

I also never understood the dearth of functionality on the Airport models, you could do some pretty sophisticated stuff with off the shelf consumer gear, not just the small enterprise and up stuff and often with stock firmware, not just on gear flashed to alternative firmware. Was never a fan of the Time Capsule models either, early models were prone to failure and taking it apart to replace the drive was stupidly complicated for a part that can and will fail. Add to that the prices weren't great given all these limitations. I don't know, I kind of enjoy all the non Apple competition from companies who actually care about the market.

As to my "app only" management complaints, I have the same issues with a lot of newer "smart" networking gear. It's a bad choice and I do not prefer it, same bad marks for those devices too. Not just picking on Apple, I simply hate app only trends.

Sorry, there was supposed to be spaces between those points!!

Bottom line is my guess Apple couldn't keep the margins high enough to bother with the line of Airport devices because people don't want pricey routers that do less and only have good but not great performance. (Initially the products are decent, but they don't innovate fast enough to keep them competitive). I'm also not sure if Apple is maintaining any non macOS/iOS based systems anymore. Let's them cut costs by getting rid of whole teams of developers.


I also miss the Airports, they were just great. That said, there are some really good options now as well. Since the demise of Airport, we switched to the AVM Fritz lineup. They get regular updates, don't have many privacy issues, and generally seem just rock solid. The UI is not so great as the Airport was, but certainly miles better than all the Linksys etc. routers that I've seen in the past.

> I'm also not sure if Apple is maintaining any non macOS/iOS based systems anymore.

They are, though perhaps not to the same extent. For example, the Secure Enclave runs L4, not XNU. iCloud is also quite a different stack from what we know. I think you’re right though that Craig likes to unify the stack where he can.

Oh, so true, I was discounting the iCloud stuff, I honestly kind of assumed Apple generally just used pretty standard web technologies for it. Or do they have whole racks of secret M powered Xserves running secret builds of Mac OS Server? Kidding.

The L4 stuff is true, I remember reading about that. Actually kind of fun to read about microkernels. Thanks for reminding me.

Jose Marques

I owned the original grey AirPort. Used it with a Toshiba Libretto L70 and an Orinoco Gold PCMCIA card. AirPort lived next to the phone line in the hallway. Little Java app on the L70 (ran FreeBSD on same) would cause the AirPort to dial-up the ISP (IIRC I was using Freeserve at the time). I'd download my new mail, send any I had queued, then hang up on the per-minute access rates. Brilliant device.

@Jose Marques
If you ran FreeBSD, how did you initially setup the Airport? Did someone code a client for BSD? That would be pretty cool actually. I guess you could use Wine and Airport Utility for Windows to manage the device itself?

And yes, Wifi routers with dial-up modem support were pretty cool for a while. I had dial-up for years. Like into the mid 90s and I used a Mac and external modem as a router for a while, with sharing over an Ethernet switch to the other devices which became wireless for a single port with two Ethernet to WiFi bridges working in tandem. It was kind of slick how this jury rigged setup actually worked pretty well.

Wait, not into the mid 90s, I am getting old and getting my decades wrong. Into the mid 2000s, like all the way until 2007 as a backup. I also used EDGE and then later 3G as a connection too. Oh man… my memory is getting worse.

Jose Marques

The Java was Swing based and I think used SNMP. The Java in question was the Linux JDK running under FreeBSD’s Linux emulation. I’d have to find the old disk image, from an old iBook, where I had a tgz file of the L70 filesystem, to be sure, but I think it may have been this:

That's amazing. I see notes on the page about how to extract firmware from the Airport Utility and support for Extreme 802.11g models. Wow! This is really neat, I appreciate the stroll down memory lane.

@Nathan It's true, the app requirement and general feature-sparsity were burdens to be endured rather than things to be celebrated. But they got everything else right. Stable, competently engineered, extremely hard to misconfigure if you followed the assistants which made them easy to recommend to newbies. The downsides really were matters more of Apple's doctrines rather than indictments of the products, things like their refusal to support UPnP or HTTP-based DDNS, the BSD-based routing which put it at a disadvantage compared to Linux-based routers with better in-kernel ALGs, etc. But they got a lot right, including superior control over port mappings, support for LAN-side DNS servers, IPv6 that actually worked well (my first live network with IPv6 through 6to4 was thanks to AirPort), etc. They were just very good at doing what they did, and I happily recommended them even as access points upstream of more advanced routers. One friend had an AirPort for an AP upstream of a MikroTik RouterBoard. A contrast if ever I saw one. So yes, they had their limitations, but also their good points which others could profitably emulate.

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