The 'Book Page

AirPort

August 17, 1999 - Dan Knight - Tip Jar

According to a recent Low End Mac poll, over half those surveyed believe wireless networking is the iBook's best feature.

Other Mac webmasters seem to agree - AirPort is the most important ingredient in the iBook mix, even if it is just an optional accessory.

Early attempts at wireless networking were either slow, too expensive, line of site, or some combination of these.

The most promising failure was probably IrDA, an infrared communication protocol that reached 4 Mbps. The big drawback -- the IrDA ports on the two devices (computers, printers, PDAs, etc.) had to be aligned with each other. Move things far enough and the connection failed.

The PC world seems enamored with slow network protocols in the 1-2 Mbps range. Compared with LocalTalk, they're fast. But this is the late 1990s, and most of the world is spoiled with 10 Mbps ethernet.

So, instead of making ethernet a Wintel standard, several companies are pushing slower, cheaper solutions. (Odd thing is, 10/100 PCI ethernet cards are already under $60.)

Compared with this, the wireless protocols being pushed on the Wintel side (and migrating to the Mac) have reasonable performance. For instance, Farallon's SkyLine runs at 2 Mbps and has a 1000' (300m) range - although that drops to 300' (90m) indoors.

On the other hand, the SkyLine PC Card sells for US$300, the AirPort "card" for the iBook only costs $100, and it moves data over five times faster, albeit over a slightly more limited range (150'/45m).

Both SkyLine and AirPort support one-to-one networking, eliminating the need for a hub when moving files between two computers with wireless ports. In fact, SkyLine and AirPort can talk to each other, although they will be limited to the 2 Mbps rate of the SkyLine protocol.

And that's the big advantage of AirPort: ethernet speed. While the Wintel world is inventing slower network protocols, AirPort has a bandwidth slightly higher than regular 10 Mbps ethernet. For most home and small office networks, AirPort will be as fast as a regular ethernet connection.

Exactly how AirPort will deploy is a bit of an unknown right now. I'm hoping Apple will build an AirPort antenna into the next iMac, next desktop, and next PowerBook. In fact, I'd be surprised if they didn't.

At the same time, I hope Apple provides some easy way to add AirPort connectivity to older PowerBooks (with a PC Card) and desktop Mac, perhaps with an AirPort PCI card and an external node that would connect to the ethernet port of any Mac.

Not only does AirPort provide good speed at a great price over a reasonable distance, it can also eliminate a lot of wiring headaches and expenses. This will not only be great in schools, but also in homes and existing offices.

AirPort has a very bright future.

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