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How extreme is Apple's new AirPort Extreme? Sure, it boost throughputs to 54 Mbps, but it's more important that Apple's adoption of 802.11g puts the company back into the pilot's seat for the industry's wireless technology adoption. Adam and Glenn Fleishman take off with all the details. We also pass on some of the best and worst bits from the Macworld Expo show floor, and take a quick look at Apple's $8 million loss for the first quarter of 2003.
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Apple Posts $8 Million Loss -- Apple Computer last week announced an $8 million loss for its first fiscal quarter of 2003. The results include one-time charges for restructuring and an accounting transition adjustment; without these items, Apple would have had an $11 million profit for the quarter. Apple shipped 743,000 Macs during the quarter - on par with the same period a year ago - and although gross margins were down to 27.6 percent, those were on revenue of $1.47 billion, up 7 percent from the same quarter the year before. International sales accounted for 43 percent of Apple's revenue. Apple also noted it was able to reduce channel inventories 11 percent during the quarter, which bodes well for the new PowerBooks just announced at Macworld Expo. [GD]
AppleWorks 6 Presents, Too! Oops. AppleWorks 6 does indeed have a presentation module, so my offhand comment to the contrary last week in "Apple Reduces Its Microsoft Dependency" was just plain wrong. My only defense is that I've never seen AppleWorks 6, since Apple doesn't generally send us review copies. AppleWorks 6 replaced the communication module in AppleWorks 5 about two years ago, and although I can't comment on how good AppleWorks 6's presentation module is, it's interesting to see how Apple redirected efforts from the AppleWorks presentation module into the full-featured Keynote. Perhaps the same thing is happening with other chunks of AppleWorks. As an aside, if you're interested in the history of integrated software, check out the final link below for the tale of how ClarisWorks came to be, written by one of the program's creators. [ACE]
by Adam C. Engst <email@example.com>
Every year I worry that Macworld Expo will somehow fall flat, that there won't be many exhibitors, that no one will come, that there won't be anything that's even moderately interesting. But every year, it seems, my fears are unfounded, and the Expo ends up showcasing an enthused community of innovative developers and committed users. This year was no exception, with over 330 vendors displaying their wares to more than 90,000 attendees. Never mind that the active show floor space was significantly smaller than in previous years or that IDG World Expo was giving free passes out like they were candy - without exception, all the attendees I talked to were upbeat, and the vendors were all happy about traffic and sales.
This was by far the busiest Macworld Expo I've ever had personally, thanks to 12 signings, interviews, and appearances over 4 days (including a quick bit on TechTV, which you can watch at the link below if you missed it live), not to mention a variety of press briefings and other meetings. Harried though I was, I had a great time and managed to see the entire show floor, where the Macintosh development community was demoing the latest and greatest. Without further ado, then, here are some of my superlatives from the show, mixed in with those from the rest of the TidBITS staff in attendance: Jeff Carlson, Matt Neuburg, and Mark Anbinder. Due to issue size restrictions, look for even more superlatives in next week's TidBITS. As always, thanks, guys!
Cheapest AirPort Range Extender -- It takes two to tango with wireless networking, and one way to improve your laptop's signal strength is to move your AirPort Base Station to a more central location. If you've avoided doing so because there's no electrical power near that ideal spot, MacWireless has a solution for you. The MacWireless Power Over Ethernet product consists of a pair of adapters that send power over unused pairs of wires in the Ethernet cable that connects your AirPort Base Station to the rest of your network. It's only $30 and should be shipping in a few weeks. [ACE]
Goin' on an iTrip -- Griffin Technology is starting to make a tradition of showing up at Macworld Expo with a hand-assembled pre-production device of some sort. This year's goodie, available in a few months, is the iTrip, an FM transmitter for the iPod. With the iTrip plugged into the top of your iPod, you can transmit music to any FM stereo (great for cars with no other audio input). Unlike other FM transmitters, the iTrip can use any frequency on the FM radio spectrum, controlled via software installed on the iPod, and it doesn't require an additional battery. The $35 iTrip can even sit perpendicular to the iPod if you need access to the FireWire port for charging. [JLC]
Best Addition to Your Stereo -- This award is shared by the HomePod, from Gloo Labs, and the SliMP3 from Slim Devices. The SliMP3 is an MP3 player that streams music from your computer over Ethernet straight to your stereo. It's a great way to direct those MP3s to a sound system that offers higher quality than tinny computer speakers. The SliMP3 is available now for $250 and requires that you plug it into your Ethernet network. But what if you can't easily run Ethernet cable to your Mac? You could attach a wireless bridge like the $100 Linksys WET11 to the SliMP3, but that's more expensive than buying a $200 HomePod, another MP3 player that communicates via an 802.11b wireless network rather than Ethernet (and in the process, makes true my first prediction for 2003 from "Back to 2002, Forward to 2003" in TidBITS-661). The HomePod is scheduled to ship in March and will be sold by MacSense. Both MP3 players offer remote controls, both can be controlled from a computer, and both have open-source platforms for developers to extend. Some differences though (as far as we can tell): the HomePod has a FireWire port for adding a hard drive or perhaps an iPod; the SliMP3 supports Internet radio; and the SliMP3 uses a bright front-mounted fluorescent display whereas the HomePod has a top-mounted LCD display. They're both way cool. [ACE]
Most Ingenious Use of Built-In Technology -- When I first heard that Riccardo Ettore had ported his popular TypeIt4Me utility to Mac OS X, my reaction was: "No way!" After all, TypeIt4Me is a control panel that hacks into the system to watch everything you type into any application, looking for abbreviations you've set up, and, when you type one, expanding it into its full form like some ghostly typist inside the computer. But on Mac OS X there are no control panels and no hacking into the system is allowed, so how could TypeIt4Me possibly work there? What I forgot, though, was that Mac OS X already has a technology that can watch everything you type and replace some characters with others - the Input Manager, which is used to implement "input methods." That's how you type Japanese and other Unicode characters, after all. So TypeIt4Me is implemented as an input method. To use it, just choose it from the keyboard menu, after which it watches you type, expanding abbreviations as necessary (an extra menu icon lets you access configuration windows). It's brilliant in its simplicity, and it works remarkably well. If you use any kind of boilerplate text that you'd prefer not to have to type manually every time (your phone number, your address, etc.), TypeIt4Me is a great way to store and access it. [MAN]
Best Windows at Macworld Expo -- You thought I was going to mention Connectix's Virtual PC 6.0 (now with a 6.0.1 update that's especially useful for those with PowerPC G3-based Macs) here, didn't you? But no, not this time, because this superlative goes to Andersen Windows, which had a good-sized booth at Macworld Expo showing off their windows (the glass variety) and doors. There are always a few non sequitur booths on the show floor, such as the perennially ignored IRS table (Free audits! Step right up!), but none so completely inexplicable as Andersen Windows. At least they had the humor to display a hand-lettered sign saying, "The best windows for Mac users." [ACE]
Nichiest Niche-Market Device -- The iGo is a desk, of sorts, that's useful only if you have one of the new iMacs, no need for a writing surface, and a retro interior decorating scheme. You know how the iMac's base is the top half of a sphere; now imagine the bottom half of that sphere, with four huge chrome legs and a flat plank attached to the front two legs. The iMac sits on the half-sphere, and the keyboard and mouse go on the plank (with no room for anything else). It makes a statement, but could you really get any work done? And does it really match your furniture, your wallpaper, and your nightgown? I predict that ten of these will be sold nationwide; on the other hand, I also predicted that the Internet would flop, so there's always hope. [MAN]
Worst Outfit -- Over the years, the use of scantily clad women to attract expo-goers into booths has almost entirely fallen by the wayside. Although we're happy to see such a crass strategy disappear, we think those women would have felt a lot better about the job if they'd seen Microsoft's MSN butterfly guy prancing around in his multicolored leotard and wings, as you can see in our picture linked below. We also spotted him when he was grabbing a bite to eat, and he didn't look at all comfortable. Maybe he was just pining for some nectar. [MHA]
Best Booth Under the Stars -- Most booths are either bare-bones functional or attractively designed, but our favorite booth used its product to full effect. The Starry Night booth featured a SciDome portable planetarium, where you could sit and gaze at the astronomy software projected onto the curved firmament above your head. It wasn't just an excellent way to showcase the program - we liked to pop in occasionally to rest from Moscone's fluorescent rays. Check out our picture below. [JLC]
PALling around with a DVR -- Never let it be said that we don't try to expand beyond our American parochialism. This announcement may not have made headlines in the U.S., but we're sure it will be a huge hit with many of our international readers. At Macworld Expo, El Gato Software released a PAL and SECAM version of EyeTV, the digital video recording hardware and software package for the Mac (think of it as TiVo for the Mac). PAL versions of EyeTV should be available in Germany, France, Italy, and the UK by the end of January, and Mac users in other European countries should be able to buy it soon thereafter. The initial European version will not include support for an electronic program guide, which will be added on a country-by-country basis (engineers are already working on electronic program guide integration in the UK, Italy, and Germany). Plus, El Gato encourages Mac programmers to add program guide support to the EyeTV, much as Karelia's Watson does in the U.S. Although the PAL versions of EyeTV aren't yet available (and haven't yet been tested) in Australia, South America, Asia, and Africa, El Gato is working on the necessary distribution agreements. [ACE]
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by Glenn Fleishman & Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Apple led the drive to offer Wi-Fi wireless networking equipment at reasonable prices to consumers way back in 1999, but the company's gateway product, the AirPort Base Station, had started to look under-featured and overpriced even by late 2001 - especially for broadband users who didn't need its built-in modem.
But Apple stayed the course: $300 for the AirPort Base Station and $100 for the proprietary AirPort card that inserted into a special PC Card-like slot in every model of the Macintosh. Because many Mac models over the last three years lack PC Card and PCI slots - notably, the iMac, eMac, Cube, and iBook - the AirPort slot was for a long time the only reasonable option for adding wireless access for under $150.
At this month's Macworld Expo, Apple not only caught up with but exceeded the rest of the wireless world by announcing AirPort Extreme. The AirPort Extreme products rely on a draft version of the IEEE 802.11g specification, which uses the 2.4 GHz radio spectrum band just like 802.11b, is completely backwards compatible with 802.11b, and operates at up to 54 Mbps.
In this article, which we're also publishing as an addendum to our recently released book, The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, we discuss compatibility issues with 802.11g and AirPort Extreme and run through the equipment's specifications. Later in this section, we note the other makers of 802.11g equipment, including Linksys, Belkin, and D-Link, and survey their initial product offerings and pricing. We've also started tracking Mac-related wireless news on a new weblog hosted at the book's Web site; stop by regularly (or add its RSS feed to your favorite headline watcher) if you're interested in what's up with AirPort and AirPort Extreme.
Forward and Backward Compatibility -- The 802.11g specification uses a relatively new method of encoding bits onto radio waves in such a way as to squeeze up to 54 Mbps of raw data across a single channel. As is the case with most theoretical network throughputs, the net throughput of real data - the actual contents of files or transactions - provides somewhere between 20 and 30 Mbps. In contrast, 802.11b's 11 Mbps raw throughput generally translated to 4 to 6 Mbps at best, and it isn't uncommon to drop below that as distance from the base station increases.
802.11g is attractive because it includes full backwards compatibility with 802.11b. This compatibility isn't optional for manufacturers, but rather is a mandatory part of the spec. 802.11g also has several intermediate steps for speed, so you don't just drop from 54 Mbps all the way down to 11 Mbps.
One of 802.11g's big advantages over 802.11b is that it better handles the inevitable signal reflection. Radio signals bounce off different pieces of matter - floors, metal, even the air around you - at different angles and speeds. A receiver must reconcile all the different reflections of the same signal that arrive at slightly different times into a single set of data. 802.11g (like 802.11a) slices up the spectrum in a way that enables receivers to handle these reflections in a simpler but more effective way than 802.11b.
Despite Steve Jobs's confident declaration in the Macworld Expo keynote that 802.11g is a "standard," the current specification has not been finalized and ratified by the IEEE, the engineering group that develops new standards. Ratification should happen relatively soon, almost certainly by the end of 2003. Until then, the 802.11g "standard," remains in draft form, although that hasn't stopped several chip manufacturers from shipping the silicon necessary to implement the current draft of 802.11g. (Apple's Web site now calls 802.11g a draft, reflecting reality.)
Also note that the Wi-Fi Alliance hasn't included 802.11g as part of its certification suite. The Wi-Fi Alliance tests equipment to make sure it works according to spec and is interoperable with all other certified equipment; if so, the maker is allowed to use the Wi-Fi logo. Until 802.11g is finished, the Wi-Fi Alliance has no way of guaranteeing that different 802.11g devices will work with one another, meaning that it will likely be some time after ratification that the Wi-Fi Alliance considers adding 802.11g to the Wi-Fi certification suite. Some of our sources speculate that a testing program could be in place as early as summer, but final certification almost certainly wouldn't start until at least late 2003.
That's not to imply that compatibility is likely to be a major problem. Manufacturers have significant motivation to maintain compatibility with other makers. No one wants to sell equipment that won't play nice with others, because to do so would undermine confidence in the entire technology. In the worst case, unless a piece of hardware is designed extremely poorly, two incompatible 802.11g devices should be able to talk at 802.11b speeds.
Compatibility problems are particularly unlikely among different devices from the same manufacturer. Apple AirPort Extreme Base Stations will happily communicate with AirPort and AirPort Extreme cards, for instance. However, good compatibility likely goes farther. Apple's equipment relies on chips from Broadcom, as does 802.11g gear from Linksys. For that reason, and because Apple and Linksys have brought the first 802.11g devices to market, it's likely that Apple and Linksys equipment will be compatible. In addition, later equipment makers will have to meet Broadcom's specs rather than vice-versa. Sometimes standards are set merely by shipping the most devices.
One way or another, compatibility will not be an issue in the long run, whether you buy hardware now or later. Apple has promised firmware upgrades as the standard stabilizes, and Apple has done a good job thus far providing these kinds of updates to the older AirPort equipment.
On a related front, Apple hasn't committed to or rejected support for WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access), the security update that fixes encryption problems and removes complexity from securing local wireless network connections. Apple said that they will monitor whether WPA becomes widely adopted and evaluate their response based on usage. Again, if Apple were to support WPA, that support would appear in the form of a free firmware update. Meanwhile, many other vendors are already promising WPA support. For instance, D-Link says their new 802.11g devices will support WPA with a firmware upgrade by the second quarter of the year.
Is 802.11a Dead? Apple has chosen to not support the existing 802.11a specification as part of AirPort Extreme. 802.11a operates in the 5 GHz band and its use of a different frequency means that it is not backwards compatible with 802.11b. Several companies offer dual-band 2.4/5 GHz radios now, but that approach increases cost and complexity.
Because of this lack of compatibility with millions of 802.11b devices currently in use, Steve Jobs said that 802.11a is doomed to failure. However, it's more appropriate to say that 802.11a is now relegated to niche status for particular purposes, such as dense installations in corporations, server room backup links, or high-speed point-to-point bridges.
Because 802.11a has 12 distinct channels that can be used without interference in the same place, it offers an advantage for scenarios in which avoiding interference is important. Likewise, the four channels reserved in the upper end of the 5 GHz band for 802.11a outdoor, point-to-point use can employ higher power levels, which may provide a better throughput than 802.11g in the same circumstances.
AirPort Extreme Base Station -- Apple offers two different AirPort Extreme Base Station models, priced at $200 and $250. Both units have 10/100 Mbps WAN and LAN ports, sport a USB port for printer sharing (but not spooling), and can bridge to other AirPort Extreme Base Stations, acting as an access point and a bridge simultaneously. The $250 unit also includes a 56K modem and a jack for an external antenna.
The 10/100 Mbps bump up in speed on the WAN port recognizes that some users might be hooking into wide-area networks or broadband connections that provide more than 10 Mbps of bandwidth (that's unfortunately not true for us, so we can't test that feature). If you're only running a 10 Mbps wired Ethernet, it might also be time to upgrade to 10/100 Mbps switches if you're also installing AirPort Extreme equipment to take full advantage of the intra-network speed. Do note that AirPort Extreme won't help your Internet use at all, since almost all Internet connections are far slower than even 802.11b's realistic 4 to 6 Mbps.
The addition of USB printer sharing enables a network of Macs to share a printer without connecting the printer to a Mac which must be turned on whenever anyone wants to print. However, the printer itself must be turned on: Apple confirmed that this feature is indeed "printer sharing," which makes it seem just like the printer is connected to each machine, rather than "printer spooling," in which print jobs are sent to the print spooler, stored in a file, and then printed out whenever the printer becomes available. (Adam absolutely adores print spooling because his printer is seldom on, and whenever he turns it on, his AppleShare IP-based print spooler immediately prints all the waiting print jobs.)
In the past, adding an external antenna to an AirPort Base Station required serious surgery that made a mockery of your warranty and required significant manual dexterity. Now, with the $250 model of the AirPort Extreme Base Station, you can simply plug an external antenna into the Apple-proprietary antenna jack.
Don't blame Apple for yet another proprietary jack - the FCC mandates that any wireless networking equipment that can take an antenna must feature a hard-to-find connector. That's because the FCC doesn't want just anyone attaching uncertified antennas that could spew more than the legal amount of signal. (An uncertified antenna is anything that the manufacturer didn't have the FCC test with a given wireless gateway or card.)
You'll be able to buy two external antennas for the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Both initial models are made and marketed by veteran Mac firm Dr. Bott. Apple said that they didn't want to get into the antenna business, but Apple is having the entire $250 AirPort Extreme Base Station plus Dr. Bott antenna system certified by the FCC. (Companies pay a separate fee for each certification - which may account for part of why the cheaper AirPort Extreme Base Station doesn't have an external antenna jack.)
The Dr. Bott ExtendAIR Omni ($100) is a 3.5 dBi omnidirectional antenna suitable for extending the range of an AirPort Extreme Base Station in a 360-degree spread; the ExtendAIR Direct ($150) is a 6.5 dBi 70-degree directional antenna. (For more on adding antennas to access points for extending range, read Chapter 8, "Going the Distance," in The Wireless Networking Starter Kit.)
Although you can still use the 56 Kbps modem (V.90, not V.92, unfortunately; see Kevin Savetz's articles on V.92 linked below) to connect via a dialup Internet connection, you might still want the modem-equipped version of the AirPort Extreme Base Station even if you have a broadband connection to the Internet. That's because the AirPort Extreme Base Station also supports PPP dial-in connections. Forget a file while you're traveling? As long as your Mac is turned on and has file sharing enabled, you can use your laptop's modem to dial up your AirPort Extreme Base Station and retrieve that file. Exactly how this feature will work won't be clear until we can test the hardware, but it could be a welcome addition. (Of course, this assumes a phone line dedicated to incoming data calls.)
The AirPort Extreme Base Station's bridge feature is unique for equipment in this price range. It enables you to extend the range of a network without wires. Just buy two AirPort Extreme Base Stations, connect one to your Internet connection, and set the other to work in bridge mode. The bridge unit connects to the master AirPort Extreme Base Station and acts as an access point for computers within range. In the past, you would have had to spend well over $500 to buy a single device that could act as an access point and bridge simultaneously, or combine separate pieces of equipment like the Linksys WAP11 and WET11 to achieve the same effect. (See pages 152 to 160 in The Wireless Networking Starter Kit for more on how wireless bridging works.)
Remember that even if you don't have a single AirPort Extreme card or 802.11g adapter on your network, two AirPort Extreme Base Stations can connect to each other at the full 54 Mbps raw speed of 802.11g. If your wired network runs at 100 Mbps, the high-speed bridging is another reason for the 10/100 Mbps WAN port on the new units.
With AirPort Extreme Base Stations, you could locate islands of wired and wireless access in various locations without running wire among those islands. This could allow you to create larger coverage area or connect neighboring buildings or homes.
Although the AirPort Extreme Base Station bridging works with up to four units at once, you reportedly cannot daisy chain the AirPort Extreme Base Stations in bridging mode; all the bridged units must each connect back to the master unit. In more extensive installations, you could run Ethernet among several master AirPort Extreme Base Stations and still use bridging on the edges of the network.
AirPort Extreme Card -- The new AirPort Extreme Card is based on the mini-PCI Card form factor, and has a new shape and connector. The card is built into every 17-inch PowerBook G4, and is a user-expandable or build-to-order option with the 12-inch PowerBook G4. (Both PowerBooks were announced at the same time as AirPort Extreme.)
These two PowerBook models also have built-in Bluetooth and a pair of antennas. Apple said the two antennas reconfigure themselves dynamically to provide either antenna diversity for better reception of Wi-Fi or 802.11g signals, or for one antenna to be dedicated to Bluetooth and the other to 802.11 depending on what's needed.
The antenna redesign also solves a problem inherent in the Titanium PowerBook G4 design which restricted the signal strength entering and leaving the computer. In the new PowerBook G4 aluminum case design, the antennas are located at the top of both sides of the LCD display with rubber seals providing radio "transparency."
Will there be an upgraded AirPort Extreme card for older Macs? The answer is a firm no. Greg Joswiak, Apple's VP of hardware products, confirmed for us that the older AirPort card relied on a too-slow bus, or communications channel, inside each Mac. This slow bus can't operate at the speed required by 802.11g, thus making it impossible to revise the card or plug a different card into that slot.
We expect that new Power Macs will be among the first Macs to sport either an AirPort Extreme slot or, less likely, a PCI-based AirPort Extreme card option. iMacs, eMacs, and iBooks would require motherboard redesign to support AirPort Extreme, and thus only a major refresh to each product line will be extreme enough to incorporate 802.11g.
It's certain that other companies will step up to the plate as well, such as Asante, Proxim, MacWireless, and Belkin, all of which have a history of supporting Macintosh networking. These companies typically release PC Cards first, meaning that only certain PowerBook models would handle 802.11g. PCI card adapters are already shipping, and we might see Ethernet or even FireWire (USB is too slow for 802.11g) converters as well.
Other 802.11g Makers -- Although Apple is early with 802.11g, it's not the first to ship products. Linksys gets that honor, having pushed out its first "54G" gateways and cards before the end of 2002, with Buffalo following quickly. D-Link and Belkin aren't far behind. (Prices are all the lowest price at Amazon.com or via the companies' online stores.)
Many Mac users know Belkin as a cable company, but the firm has been shipping a variety of networking products, including inexpensive Bluetooth adapters, for some time. By the time you read this, the company plans to ship four devices: a wired/wireless gateway (F5D7230-4, retail price $150), a plain access point (F5D7130, $140), a PC Card (F5D7010, $80), and a PCI card (F5D7000, $80). Belkin has promised drivers for its 802.11g gear by February for Mac OS 8.6 and later.
Linksys has two 54G gateways and two cards. The WRT54G is a combination wired switch and wireless gateway which updates their BEFW11S4 model ($130). The WAP54G is a simple access point that adds 802.11g support to the WAP11 ($130). The WPC54G PC Card ($70) is available now, and the WMP54G PCI adapter ($70) is coming soon. Linksys has little to no Macintosh support for any of its existing products.
D-Link is offering products under the complicated brand name of AirPlus Xtreme G. They also have a wired/wireless gateway (DI-624, $150), a plain access point (DWL-2000AP, $140), a PC Card (DWL-G650, $80), and a PCI Card (DWL-G520, $90). D-Link has offered limited AppleTalk support in its previous offerings, but Mac drivers are unlikely.
Buffalo has its AirStation G54 Broadband Router Access Point (WBR-G54) for a retail price of $200 and a PC Card (WLI-CB-G54) for $100. Street prices should be less. The company has offered limited Mac support in the past.
Future of G -- The future of 802.11g is bright given its advantages, and the early rush to push products into the marketplace. Buying equipment now should cost only a slight premium over later prices: Apple probably won't adjust its prices much, if at all, based on its history, and 802.11g devices from other manufacturers will probably drop only $10 to $30 over the course of 2003 unless major manufacturing breakthroughs occur or chip prices plummet.
We're bullish on 802.11g because it's backwards compatible, and because it doesn't rely on unproven technology. Faster speed at about the same price? Count us in.
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