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« 802.11b Question | Main | Welcome WiFi Metro »

November 13, 2001

Apple: a Year Late, $100 Too Much

Defying Apple's trend of introducing sophisticated new products ahead of the PC industry and helping to create de facto standards or build markets for 802.11b, USB, and FireWire (IEEE 1394), Apple today released its revised AirPort Base Station and AirPort 2.0 software. (AirPort is Apple's name for 802.11b.)

The gateway features a new LAN 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port in addition to the existing "56K" modem and 10 Mbps WAN Ethernet; the ability to dial-up directly over the modem using AOL version 5.0 for Mac (U.S. only); and 40/64- and 128-bit encryption. Configuration is through Mac-only software (or unsupported third-party Java configuration tools).

Firmware and software upgrades are available for older Base Stations and AirPort Cards (which are essentially Agere Orinoco Silver cards being upgraded to Gold). Older Base Stations cannot be upgraded to 128-bit encryption, however.

These updates remain at a premium: the cards are $99, somewhat higher than cheaper PC Cards which don't have drivers for the single Mac model that sports a PC Card slot. On the flip side, it's much cheaper than comparable PCI Cards; Apple's tower models have a separate built-in slot for the AirPort card, just like the iMacs, iBook, and PowerBook. The Base Station is $299, or $50 to $100 more than similar Mac-compatible, Web-based configuration models. (Two companies make gateways that pass AppleTalk packets, which Apple has been phasing out in favor of pure TCP/IP-based filesharing and printing for the last few years.)

What Apple is offering is the value-add: simple, Mac-tailored software with easy configuration options coupled with a slick, box. The AOL connectivity is a big plus for many users, too: although I and all my friends and colleagues are broadband subscribers over DSL and cable, the vast majority of connected Americans still dial up.

In promoting their new software (which upgrades existing AirPort cards to 128-bit WEP support) and the new Base Station, Apple perpetuates the notion that longer WEP keys are safer, which I think is a mistake. The entire industry and the IEEE are well aware that WEP itself is broken. (The older Base Station model cannot be flash upgraded to support 128-bit WEP keys.)

Apple wraps the WEP message in a broader security profile, however: they now support RADIUS authentication, and recommend VPN software (all of which protocols the Base Station passes) for companies with an interest in securing their data flow.

Apple's page on where and how to use AirPort also appears to have been written several months ago - or never updated - as it lists MobileStar (reportedly about to file for bankruptcy and sells its assets to VoiceStream) and AirWave (sold its public AP network to WiFi Metro last week) as two wireless ISPs one might use.


When I went to CompUSA and Circuit City in my area, I couldn't find a Wireless Gateway that had a modem built into it. In "prehistoric telecom" Bay Area this is important to me because I can't get DSL, Cable Internet, Sprint Wireless Broadband isn't accepting customers, etc etc etc.

So, if I want Wireless at home, these "Wireless DSL/Cable Routers" from Linksys and the like are totally useless to me.

I'm sure there are at least 4 companies making wireless routers with modems, but they're not at CompUSA, nor Circuit City. I could try Staples and Good Guys but basically all these stores just sell crap. This is why Apple can get away with their price, because, the thing is a known quantity, it's readily available, and it does things the other ones don't.

Most people wouldn't know how or where to find the right router if they wanted to, so Apple's base station looks like a good deal.

And, it's obviously the sexiest of the bunch. That matters. It's worth $50 to me, anyway. :-)


Jim is right. Apple is supporting a niche market and of course all Macintosh users. I am one who used to use my Airport Base Station (ABS) as a DSL router to my wireless network and also as a bridge to my ethernet network with NAT accross the entire LAN. When I lost DSL service I was able to simply configure the ABS to act as a modem and router and continued to operate exactly the same way. Of course you don't get great performance connecting an entire LAN to the Internet at 56K speeds but at least it's smooth sharing of the bandwidth and beats running a desktop as a gateway.

As far as the price I think that possibly the Apple product is overpriced but remeber that it has been available at that same price for more than two years when competing products were significantly more expensive and less capable. My Powerbook wireless card is integral and does not tie up my PC slot yet it works seamlessly with other 802.11 networks and can be preconfigured to allow quick switching from one network to another with Apple's reletively simple networking software in OSX and OS9. I often use it at my friend's house with his Linksys router and Unix servers.

Granted that my PCs, while able to take full advantage of the Network and the Internet connection, are unable to configure the ABS but that's not a problem for me since there is always a Mac running on the LAN. For that reason I would be hesitant to recommend the Apple system to an all PC network except for advanced users. And unless a Mac user needs the modem connectivity I would recommend the Linksys over the Apple router for price and features. I need an additional 10/100 switch (a hub will work also) to complete the ethernet bridge with the ABS. The Linksys has a switch built in and is cheaper as a unit. I would still suggest Apple Powerbook users get the Apple cards for $99 because the software is superior on the Mac and built in beats an ugly PC card sticking out the side of your laptop any day!

On the other hand the ABS is very simple to set up with a Mac network and looks really cool hanging on the wall like a peice of strange modern art!

Two years ago I enjoyed being the only one I knew who had wireless conectivity in my home but the days of being on the cutting edge are fading. This is of course a good thing!

I agree with all that you said. I should have mentioned that I own two AirPort Base Stations and have three AirPort Cards installed, so I'm a user, not just a critic of pricing. What I really wanted to see from Apple in this release at this price was a key-hopping Mac-only solution (not trivial, but not bloody difficult, either) to actually secure a network with WEP - it could be upgraded later to whatever 802.11i decides on, and it could have been configurable to allow non-key-hopping computers, too. I also wanted to see a real firewall beyond NAT. The Base Station still does not support port filtering or "shut down all ports but these," either of which would have been very useful for additionally protecting a network. By not doing that in the Base Station, even OS X users have to get extra software and install it on each machine. True, OS X has a firewall, but it's turned off.

I run Netbarrier and it seems to work great across the entire LAN. Netbarrier only runs on OS9 so you must have an OS9 (maybe 8.5 or earlier, I don't know) mac running at all times. It not only guards the host computer but it also protects the network from attacks according to the way it is configured. I tested it by launching a series of basic attacks at my network from the outside.

I'm sure other firewall solutions on other platforms will perform in a similar way and I realize this is not an ideal solution to security issues with the ABS. On the other hand, since I am still running the ABS connected via the internal 56K modem I am not too worried about outside attacks.

As far as the WEP security. I realize that a good hacker with the proper tools could park his car outside my house and access my LAN within a reasonable amount of time but however short that time is it would be more than the amount of time for a local police patrol to be tapping on the tinted glass with the butt end of his quadracell maglight in response to a neighborhood watch call! :-) It would have been easier for the hacker to wait until I go to work and simply break into my house and steal my hard drive from my PC.

My point is that 802.11 is great for home use and keeping your nosy neighbor out of your LAN but I wouldn't want to be sending information of national security importance over such a network. I think that the average home user won't understand how to configure a firewall properly anyway and simple NAT is good enough. I have several friends who are experts at such matters yet couldn't be bothered to enable protection because they simply don't care about the data on their LAN.

I am not that extreme since I have seen from my Netbarrier log that there are occasional attempt to gain access to my computers but are never very persistent. I believe that for the average home user simple precautions can be taken to avoid leaving open ports without password protection to provide basic security.

I'm can get the idea. ;-)

The reasonable amount of time is 5 to 30 minutes now, unfortunately.