Friday, April 27, 2018

Apple should reinvent home networking

I started writing this article about a month ago. Here’s part of the original intro:

You may have been saddened to hear that Apple has no plans to update their wireless networking/storage line of equipment known as AirPort, but I think something bigger could be brewing in Cupertino.

Now in the wake of AirPort’s official demise, my thoughts remain unchanged on how and why Apple should reinvent home networking, because it’s needed more than ever.

Like any Apple product, AirPort routers offered a simple interface for configuration, employing Apple’s ‘it just works’ mentality. I have never owned an AirPort product, but from what I know, the entire line handled the basics swimmingly. But the reality is: the demand on our home networks and the Internet is only growing, and AirPort essentially was a hobby, similar to the original Apple TV.

In a world where everything is connected, in a time where privacy and security are more important than ever, Apple should seize the opportunity to offer a modern wireless networking solution that also takes advantage of their flourishing ecosystem.

No More Hobbies

When Steve Jobs introduced the first Apple TV, he positioned it as a hobby product. In other words, something Apple didn’t really go all-in on.

Nowadays, Apple simply can’t afford to make any more hobby products. Their massive scale no longer supports this kind of strategy, and they also need to be very conservative when it comes to focus and time. We have come to expect the best from Apple on every product, and that is why we are so critical when they fall even a little short. Current products such as AirPort, Mac Pro, and Mac Mini aren’t meeting those high standards. 1 So, when Apple releases something new, count on them to go all-in from this point forward. I think a new networking system is worth their time and attention.

The Way It Is

Typically, most people still have the wireless router/modem combo that comes from their ISP. All of these are trash. It’s cheap technology with crappy management software that is usually locked down. Not to mention the coverage provided is shaky at best.

Many people replace those with third-party routers that get the job done, such as an Asus, Linksys, Netgear, etc., but they still aren’t perfect. There’s not a solitary gotta have it router. They are largely boring products that function in an adequate manner.

The Mesh Wi-Fi Revolution

2017 really seemed like the year of consumer mesh Wi-Fi solutions. That is, a series of wireless access points placed strategically throughout your home to blanket the entire place in strong Wi-Fi signal. The APs talk to each other to coordinate handoff of your device from one to another, as well as to preserve bandwidth. In other words, they function similar to how real enterprise access points do, without being individually hardwired to a switch.

Here are a few of the popular solutions out there:

I’ve heard generally good things about all the above options, with Eero and Amplifi being a couple of the favorites. If I had to choose one right now, it would easily be Amplifi. It’s made by Ubiquiti Networks, makers of exceptional enterprise and prosumer products for years, known for their amazing performance, accessibility, and affordability. When we moved into our current home, I did a lot of research and put in a real home network. As a result, I have two of their Unifi APs and an Edgerouter Lite. I absolutely love their equipment, and I can’t say that enough. I’m very confident I’d be satisfied by their Amplifi product, but I’d still prefer an Apple one.

The case for an Apple solution

By and large, Apple’s philosophy is to own and/or design as much of the technology stack as possible, right? Not just the device itself, but the actual underlying technology. So, imagine a best-in-class Mesh Wi-Fi solution made by Apple that tightly integrates with their ecosystem. Killer Wi-Fi would be guaranteed, but Apple could delight with so much more.

Whenever rationalizing a new product, it’s important to take into account the ‘for sake of what’, or the ‘why’. Why would Apple make a new product when there are so many established solutions out there? Simple answer: every home needs Wi-Fi, and as I noted above, all the regular options suck. For people who don’t know what Eero, Luma, or the others are, an Apple Wi-Fi system packaged in a white box is all they would need to pull the trigger. It would be such an easy sell on these two points alone:

  1. Unhappy with your router (constant resets, terrible range, etc.)? Here’s an Apple solution.
  2. Have mostly Apple devices in your home? Here’s an Apple solution.

Apple has the skill set, knowledge, and wherewithal to create the absolute best Wi-Fi system. They should jump at that chance. And tying in their core beliefs would make for an even more exceptional product.

Here is what I could picture an Apple Mesh system looking like:

Design & Hardware

  • For the base, I’m picturing something similar to the white HomePod, but smaller, and without the mesh fabric and top touch area. The nodes would be similar, but perhaps a bit smaller.
  • Support of the latest and greatest networking bands and standards on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies.
  • Use the power and learnings of the A and W-Series chips as the silicon foundation.
  • Build in Bluetooth, so it can function as a HomeKit hub.
  • Go with the standard three-piece mesh setup (one base, two additional nodes). Offer additional nodes separately.
  • Continue the Time Capsule trend and include a 1TB Solid State Drive in the main base unit by default for Time Machine and iOS backups (more below).
  • Enable future Apple TV and HomePod models to function as additional mesh nodes, therefore expanding the network when and where necessary.

Setup and Configuration

  • Use the proximity-based card UI for initial setup of the system, just like AirPods, Beats, and HomePod. 2
  • Join a new device to the network by bringing any iOS or Mac device near any one of the nodes. The owner is then prompted to authorize you via a push notification from the Home app. This extends the ease of joining Wi-Fi in iOS 11 one step further.
  • Automatically scan the environment and choose the best transmission channels for your home to avoid interference. Also implement high-level features consumers normally would never think of, like band steering, to point 5GHz-capable devices to the 5GHz band when the range/speed is appropriate, and back them off to 2.4GHz when greater range is needed.
  • Manage the system as a HomeKit accessory in the Home app, just like HomePod. I realize the UI is a bit clunky, but the device belongs in this app.
  • Cache any applicable content and software for use by other devices on your network (e.g. macOS/iOS software updates, recently downloaded iTunes movies and music, etc.) This would reduce the need for multiple devices to download the same content individually. If opened up to third parties, you could have Netflix, Hulu, and others take advantage of this as well.
  • Enable local backups of iOS devices to make for an even faster restore process than using iCloud or iTunes.
  • Enable better Wi-Fi handoff for Apple Watch. Right now, if I leave my phone in the bedroom and I have my Apple Watch in the living room, Siri and other services are slow as a dog because Apple Watch still holds on to my phone via a degraded Bluetooth connection. This may be solvable without an Apple router, but having one could only help. 3

Privacy and Security

  • Eliminate the need for a separate hardware device when it comes to family controls, like Circle with Disney. Allow customers to natively set limits for when family members can use the Internet, along with content filtering (i.e. explicit).
  • Harness the stance on strong privacy and security by making it the most hardened consumer router on the market. Apple will never sell or use your Internet data for nefarious means. I’m not saying the other major router manufacturers do, but Apple’s policies on these items would reign supreme. The trust is well-established.

I’m sure there are more opportunities, but this feature set would be perfect as a Gen 1 product — a little innovation here and there, with even greater promise assumed of future iterations.

And We’re Calling It … HomePort

The keynote would practically write itself:

“Today, Apple reinvents home networking.”
“And we’re calling it … HomePort.”
“And to tell you all about it, here’s Phil Schiller…”
“Thanks Tim. HomePort is a revolutionary Wi-Fi system for your home…”

Suffice it to say, I think there is a ton of potential in Apple making this product. As Apple enters new markets, such as AR, VR, and wearables, our home networking needs will only grow exponentially. The experience will be more important than ever going forward.

As for the name, I would love for them to call it ‘HomePort’. It fits right in with ‘HomePod’, while being a natural successor to ‘AirPort’. I truly believe this is a product worth Apple’s time to build, and I hope they feel the same way in the future.

  1. Many professionals would argue MacBook Pro belongs on this list, but I think it could go either way. 
  2. One thing I loved about HomePod was the guided setup of this UI, accompanied by Siri’s voice. Really made the setup experience more organic. Apple should do this from now on. 
  3. I’m of the mindset that Apple Watch should default to my Wi-Fi when I’m at home, anyway. Why hang on to iPhone via Bluetooth in this situation?