Why Apple Is Missing the Boat on Home Wi-fi

Posted on June 15th, 2020 by

In April 2018, Apple announced that it was discontinuing its AirPort home wi-fi products. The AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express, and Time Capsule were easy-to-use routers and wi-fi access points that fit perfectly into the Apple ecosystem. The AirPort Express was the first easy way to stream music to devices in your home using AirPlay (initially called AirTunes), because you could connect a stereo or powered speakers to the device. And the Time Capsule contained a hard drive, to use for Time Machine backups. Presumably, sales of these devices weren’t good enough to maintain the product line and its software.

Most people don’t buy routers or wi-fi access points; they use what their ISP gives them. But anyone who wants more control or better range eventually opts for a separate access point, and mesh wi-fi systems, while more expensive than a standalone router, ensure excellent coverage even in large homes and on multiple floors.

Wi-fi has undergone changes, with the implementation of the new Wi-Fi 6 protocol, which offers faster and more efficient data transfer; the latest iPhones and iPad pro models all support this technology, and it’s likely that the next updates to Apple computers will as well. A number of mesh wi-fi systems are available to support this protocol, with more coming soon, but, for now, this technology is only available at premium prices.

In 2019, Amazon purchased Eero, a mesh wi-fi company founded in 2014. This technology has become very popular in recent years, with offerings from companies such as Google, Netgear, Linksys, and others. Mesh wi-fi allows you to set up a network of multiple devices that work together in your home or office, eliminating dead zones, and extending the range of wi-fi without degrading bandwidth.

Mesh wi-fi systems are easy to configure, and generally reliable; I bought a Netgear Orbi setup about three and a half years ago, and haven’t had any problems with wi-fi in my home since. Apple now sells a number of mesh wi-fi packages on the Apple Store, from brands like Netgear, Linksys, and Eero. Interestingly, not only does Apple sell the Eero devices on its online stores, but Eero is the only system Apple sells that is compatible with HomeKit.

With the rise of smart home devices, the router can become the hub, both controlling the smart home and collecting data about it. Amazon’s purchase of Eero will help the company change the home wi-fi game, giving them a huge edge on controlling home networks. The company already has its Echo devices to listen to what you’re doing, the Ring doorbell and security camera to see what’s happening inside and outside your home, and its Alexa smart assistant is ubiquitous in smart devices. With Eero, Amazon can potentially insert Alexa into your network, or can even make future Echo devices part of a mesh wi-fi network. And they will certainly collect data about your internet usage.

For example, Eero published a report in 2017 showing anonymized data about internet usage it had gleaned from its devices. It shows how many and what types of devices people use, how much time they spent using the internet, when they were most active, how many people used the internet to stream video, and much more. Your router can store your browser history and see a lot about your activity with other apps. This type of data could help Amazon extend its control over certain markets, and the company could certainly extend the data types that are collected.

Apple, with its firm stance on privacy, abandoned the wi-fi router market just at the time when this new wi-fi technology was becoming common. The company could have marketed their own such devices highlighting the fact that they would not collect user data. If Apple had bought a company like Eero, or developed their own mesh wi-fi system, they could use this to leverage their own activities in the smart home, rather than pretending that the Apple TV or HomePod is the ideal smart home hub. (When you use HomeKit with smart home devices, you need to have a "HomeKit hub," which can be a HomePod, an Apple TV, or an iPad.)

A mesh wi-fi system could form part of a broader Apple home network. Imagine if the HomePod, Apple TV, or future Apple in-home devices, acted as a satellite for a wi-fi access point, as well as being a HomeKit hub; this could get more people to buy these media devices, knowing that they would serve more than one purpose.

In addition, the Time Capsule, an AirPort base station with a built-in hard drive, was a great way to ensure that people backed up their Macs. It meant that both desktop Macs and laptops could be automatically backed up without needed to connect an external hard drive. This was not without its quirks, but the technology was seamless. Apple could have extended this backup to iOS devices as well, allowing local backups instead of or in addition to iCloud backups.

Beyond these two elements, it’s Apple’s abdication of the core technology we use to access content on our devices at home that seems surprising.

With all the concerns about privacy and the exploitation of user data, this is an area where Apple could have taken a stance. They could have built their AirPort devices into a mesh wi-fi system, perhaps adding that capability to the HomePod as well, which could give more value to that device. Perhaps Apple has some plans for this in the future, but for now, Amazon has a huge advantage in the smart home market.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →