AirPort Axed

30 April 2018

The discontinuation of the AirPort router line is one of those tricky Apple topics where I struggle to see a clear-cut ‘correct’ reaction. There are plenty of reasons to be upset and plenty of reasons to justify Apple’s decision making, and I do not think there is an obvious winner of the debate.

WiFi is critically important to all of Apple’s products. If you are using an Apple product at home, you are using a WiFi router, probably all day long. And what do most Apple customers use? A free/bundled router from their broadband provider, built to be as cheap as possible with little care for elegance or usability. There’s a magnetic compulsion to the market for the company that wants to control the entire customer experience with integrated devices that make using them all simpler. The Time Capsule also had a compelling secondary use as a plug-and-play disk backup device, and the Express helped extend the AirPlay music streaming ecosystem.

However, how much can Apple really effect these markets? The scope in numbers of customers is enormous, but establishing what Apple can do to differentiate itself from the bargain-basement routers from the cable company and the existing third-party WiFi router manufacturers is much harder. The biggest problems with WiFi are configuration and setup.

The AirPort devices were really good at this; you can create a network and connect to the internet with an AirPort Extreme without leaving the iPhone Settings app. And yet, these tasks are not common routines for normal people, I mean — by definition — setup only happens once. When WiFi is working, is using an AirPort product better than something from TP-Link or Netgear? Not really. AirPort range and performance will certainly beat out the freebie products but higher-end third-party (but still cheaper) equipment would generally benchmark the same or better than Apple’s offerings. As the AirPort line has languished over the last half-decade, the products have been trounced by the competition, especially as mesh systems become more popular. Even with a fresh investment, I struggle to see what Apple could today that was meaningfully ahead of the market.

Even in AirPort’s heyday, they weren’t very popular. Normal people don’t like paying for things they already have. I’ve seen plenty of people just make do with what they’ve got, in spite of crippling network black spots that I could never put up with. Apple could make the best router that ever existed and they still wouldn’t sell that many of them. Not only is that not great business, it also doesn’t help make the case that AirPort improves the experience of using iOS devices if nobody will have one in their house.

Of course, the premise of the Time Capsule is (ironically) a relic of the past. iCloud is a much better solution all-round to getting users to back up data regularly. Time Capsule was always a Mac-only accessory, too. iCloud has been Apple’s only answer for iOS data backup for a while. Now, it’s time for the Mac to formally join that party (perhaps with a full-disk iCloud Time Machine backup feature in the next macOS release).

The Express also doesn’t hold its weight as a router; I think Apple should offer an AirPlay 2 repeater but drop the WiFi stuff and make it really cheap, at least half off the $99 price tag of the ‘new’ 2012 AirPort Express. This product may indeed exist in the near term — merely without AirPort branding.

This leaves the AirPort Extreme standing on the legs of easy setup, simple iOS-integrated settings, and a pretty box. It’s a tough call but I think I see Apple’s argument for ending its life. I hope Apple launches some kind of partner program to integrate third-party router configuration into iOS WiFi Settings, giving them the primary benefit of what the AirPort line offered. Think AirPrint but for WiFi routers.

Maybe one day, the company will take another stab at it when they have a really good idea, when they can envision something that only Apple can do well. I think six years since the last update of any kind shows they were out of ideas, or at least weren’t motivated to continue it, for the time being.

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. Next up on the firing line, iPod touch, MacBook Air or Mac Mini?