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This article was published on March 22, 2022

I have a theory about why Apple won’t release another router

Call me Young Einstein

I have a theory about why Apple won’t release another router
Callum Booth
Story by

Callum Booth

Editor of Plugged by TNW

Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He w Callum is an Englishman in Amsterdam, but not in the way you're thinking. He's the Editor of Plugged, TNW's consumer tech vertical. He writes about gear, gadgets, and apps — with a particular focus on Apple — and also makes the occasional odd video. Basically, he's halfway between an abrasive gadget nerd and thinky art boy.

I miss Apple’s AirPort range. Back when I was taking my first forays into home networking, these wireless routers and extenders were a vital part of my setup.

Yet, as per usual, good things couldn’t last.

Back in 2018, Apple bowed out of the networking game entirely and discontinued its AirPort and Time Capsule line-up.

Besides me, one who hasn’t let this slide is Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman. In a piece published earlier this week, the renowned Apple analyst and leaker called for the company to reintroduce Wi-Fi routers as part of its product portfolio.

And, honestly? The argument for this relaunch is compelling.

apple airport express first gen
This is the AirPort Express, which was both capable of AirPlay and being a wireless access point.

Effectively, Gurman argues that now Apple has finally pulled its head out of its arse with its Mac range (ergo, dropping irritations like the Touch Bar and the Butterfly Keyboard, while improving the MacBook Pro and introducing the M1 chip), the time is nigh for the company to take another look at networking.

There’s some sense in this by itself, but the aspect of Gurman’s reasoning that appealed to me most was the suggestion that Apple should develop a mesh system using its devices.

The company has already done something similar with its AirTags, as it uses a mesh of Apple devices to locate the trackers. In terms of providing a Wi-Fi signal in your home, the company could release an updated AirPort router that then connects to other Apple devices (like the HomePod Mini), creating a mesh network covering your whole house.

It’s a fantastic idea — but it’s not gonna happen.

Why won’t Apple release new routers?

There are two main reasons. Shockingly, let’s start with the first: technical limitations.

When Apple shuttered the AirPort range, it began retailing other companies’ routers as a replacement. For example, it’s currently selling a Linksys Velop mesh system with three units for $500.

Linksys Velop mesh system
This is a pic of the Linksys Velop, a mesh system that even looks a tiny bit ‘Apple.’

The point here is that mesh networking doesn’t come cheap. And if the company wants to get its beloved ‘Apple tax’ and deliver a comparable experience, the new AirPort units will be bum-clenchungly expensive.

This leads onto our next point. For the new AirPort router range to be worthwhile for the average user, they need to deliver something beyond what other companies are doing with their networking equipment.

The aforementioned idea of meshing Apple products gets us close — as will expected features like an improved setup experience — but we bump into another problem: there aren’t enough home-based devices to provide an attractive mesh option.

Using iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks as nodes would be too battery taxing (let alone unreliable, as they’re constantly moving). If we look to Google, a company thriving in this space, the reason its Nest Wi-Fi mesh network has been so successful is because people have widely adopted its smart home products, from the Nest Mini to the Home Max.

Apple simply doesn’t have this advantage.

Maybe if the business had released a HomePod with a screen, things would be different. Instead, the company knows most Apple users don’t have homes brimming with its smart speakers, so that avenue of using them to create a mesh network is currently off the cards.

As it can’t look to this for differentiation, Apple would need to search elsewhere — and this is where other technical limitations arise.

header image the homepod with a screen
BEHOLD, A HOMEPOD WITH A SCREEN! (We pay this artist a lot of money).

For all intents and purposes, the Cupertino firm shuttered its division responsible for routers all the way back in 2016. This means there’s a cavernous knowledge gap in the company and, although I believe Apple has the resources to bridge it, it’d take an extensive amount of time and money to not just catch up, but actually outstrip organizations whose entire business is networking.

Again, this is possible, but here’s where we encounter our second reason why Apple won’t release a new router any time soon: reputation.

A key element in Apple enticing so many people into its ecosystem is due to the strong positive feelings its devices endear. For example, how many times have you heard people say they use the company’s products because “they just work?”

This is by design.

Anyone who has ever used a defective or poorly designed piece of tech knows just how much daily rage you direct towards it. Currently, Apple has fine control over the way the majority of its devices work.

If there’s a bug with an iPhone, it can be fixed via an over-the-air software update. If there’s a flaw on a MacBook, you can take it into an Apple Store. These problems have a clear workflow.

The same isn’t true of a wireless network.

Consider the last two years of the pandemic. How many times did your home Wi-Fi network drop out or frustrate you? The variance in people’s homes and where they place routers has a huge impact on how well they perform.

Think of Wi-Fi like a printer. Although the technology has improved in leaps and bounds, the nature of their operation inevitably leads to mistakes.

So, if Apple re-enters the world of routers, it risks suffering reputation damage over something it can’t control. And, if people start losing faith in Apple, they stop buying so many of its devices. That means less money. And we all know how Apple feels about money.

These two issues (the amount of investment and potential reputational damage) will, in my mind, keep Apple from re-entering the router market any time soon. This doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but I’d expect the company to first invest in its smart home offerings before branching out into networking again.

Which is a shame. I still miss my AirPort Express — and I’m holding out hope that, one day, we see its like again.

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