The MacBook Air: A Bad Wi-Fi Guess?

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 27, 2008

I don’t usually indulge in pure speculation, but I am going to break my own rule to wonder about what seems to me the strangest decision apple made in designing the MacBook Air, its almost complete reliance on Wi-Fi for communications. Besides, since Apple officials won;t actually discuss their design decisions, there isn’t much alternative to speculation.

My guess is that at the time Apple was making the critical design decisions, probably a year or so ago, it bet that public Wi-Fi was going to be a great deal more ubiquitous than has turned out to be the case. In early 2007, many U.S. cities were rushing ahead with plans for municipal Wi-Fi networks. Most of those now have been drastically scaled back or abandoned altogether because of economic and technical issues.

At the same time, wireless broadband over mobile phone networks was just starting to take off and might have seemed a shaky technology bet. And building for an internal wireless connection is something that has to be engineered into a laptop from the beginning, not added at the last moment. Especially in a package as tiny as the Air, isolating radios from the processor and from each other is challenging, as is finding a place for another antenna in an all-metal case (aluminum is thoroughly opaque to microwaves.)Furthermore, giving buyers flexibility in the choice of carriers and wireless technology requires placing the radio in a field-serviceable slot, no easy trick with the Air's design.

Alas, it's hard to think of a laptop that would profit more from wireless broadband than the Air. It's thinness and lightness encourages a carry-me everywhere attitude that should be matched by the ability to connect anywhere--not just in the scattered locations where public Wi-Fi happens to be available.

As long as we are speculating, maybe WiMax technology will come to the Air's rescue. Both Sprint and ClearWire are building WiMax networks in the U.S., though it's not clear how badly Sprint's financial and managerial woes will affect the rollout. Intel has announced that its "Montevina" chipsets, which are likely to show up in an Air refresh in the second half of the year, will support WiMax the same way its Centrino chips handle Wi-Fi. So there's hope that before the end of the year, we may see a WiMax-based connect-anywhere Air.

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Reader Comments

doog

January 27, 2008 07:53 PM

Building cell network wireless support is tricky - do you add another two radios (for EDGE/HSPA and EVDO), just choose one, or dump WiFi?

I think that they made the right choice; I think that WiFi gives most traveling users the best way to use at home, hotels, etc. I could imagine Apple coming out later with a small, portable travel router/AP, like Dlink's GWL-G730AP, that perhaps includes a PC Card slot for your own EVDO or EDGE card, or plug into an ethernet port.

Steve Wildstrom

January 27, 2008 09:01 PM

@Doog--that's why the normal design is to make make the broadband radio a field-serviceable installation, so that you don't get locked in to a carrier.

A travel router is not a great mobility solution--it's awkward and requires AC power. The beauty of the wide-area radio is the ability to open up your laptop wherever you are and connect. That requires the neatest and most compact solution, and its hard to beat internal.

Shaji

January 27, 2008 11:38 PM

My network card has been down for almost a year, and I suspect, because it has hardly been used.

I've always relied on wi-fi, and I guess I always will, even being based in a south-east Asian nation where it is thought wi-fi access is not so readily available!

So why not? I think Apple has their ear to the ground. Great choice. As usual, expect the rest to follow.

Robert

January 28, 2008 12:49 PM

The Air isn't ahead of its time, it's just a poor design choice for Apple. Too much performance and flexibility was given up in exchange for the slim form factor and light weight. If you have to carry and connect external devices for it to be useful, they should have been included in the first place.

It's an expensive toy that underperforms. I suspect hardcore Apple users will love it. More Kool-Aid for them to drink.

Glenn Fleishman

January 28, 2008 01:22 PM

In all my years of writing about wireless data, both cell and Wi-Fi, I have yet to get a good answer to the question, "Where do you usually work" that involves "en route where there's no Wi-Fi."

Cell cards are great for single price, ubiquitous access, with fallback in areas where there's less than stellar cell (and typically less than stellar broadband and Wi-Fi). This is great. But you pay $60 to $80 per month for that privilege (in PC Card/USB form).

For the vast majority of personal and business users, Wi-Fi is available, often free, at the vast majority of places they travel. Business users often have an iPass or similar unlimited Wi-Fi use subscription. Individuals and small businessfolk might use Boingo ($22 per month unlimited), T-Mobile ($20 to $40 per month unlimited), or seek out the many free locations, which includes several airports.

Cell is great also for continuous seamless coverage, which is why a lot of folks use it while on trains and ferries. (It's also great in the Macworld Expo keynote, where there's NO Wi-Fi!)

So...where do you want to use an Air, Stephen, where there's no Wi-Fi? I really would like to know the answer.

zephxiii

January 28, 2008 01:22 PM

Well it having wifi is a nobrainer, its the most common connection in homes, and other places. The lack of EVDO/HSDPA radios was probably due to lack of real estate. If i had a choice between the two, definitely wifi.

The real issue is its lack of hard connectivity, one usb port, no ethernet. I mean do you really want to transfer large amounts of data over wifi? No, thats terrible, gigabit ethernet gets me around 30mB/s in file transfers, wifi doesn't even come anywhere close to that, even 100mbit seems slow sometimes.

Only one USB port is really limiting, since it has no builtin EVDO/HSPA radio, that gobbles one port, but what about your camera, ipod, iphone/phone, flash drive or any other common USB device. You'd have to drag around a hub just to plug in everything that the thing lacks.

Even on my regular laptop i am using right now, i have both USB ports in use, and even two ports feel limiting on this device (no wifi integrated though).

just my opinion though.

Maudite

January 28, 2008 01:31 PM

SNIP>>@Doog--that's why the normal design is to make make the broadband radio a field-serviceable installation, so that you don't get locked in to a carrier.

And we all know how open Apple is into letting us choose a carrier (iPhone)

David

January 28, 2008 01:34 PM

Apple has always looked to the future, not the past. WiFi is definitely the future, not slow Edge.

The AirBook is not a cell phone, it's a computer! I personally don't see the point of adding a service such as Edge on an AirBook. Get an iPhone if you want to be able to browse internet where WiFi is not available.

Air Tech

January 28, 2008 01:36 PM

I agree completely. At the recent CES show there were several companies announcing that they are pulling out of their Wi-Fi contracts to cities. No matter what, they must ride a fiber somewhere and the big telecommunication companies have raised rates so high to Wi-Fi providers that it is almost impossible to be financially feasible.

Khan

January 28, 2008 02:20 PM

I believe they should add an express card slot to the Macbook Air and in this way user would be able to option which carrier to chose from.
Macbook Air design is a killer design and I don't think they need to change any of its design neither give out on thinness just because few people out there things about it. Its perfect for people who travels alot and just in case if someone doesn't like it he/she doesn't have any obligation to buy.

g michael a

January 28, 2008 02:25 PM

Since almost every MacBook Air user will be carrying around a Bluetooth 2.0 capable cell phone as well, they can probably keep their wireless connection to internet in their pocket.

That being said, the Air is still to fragile for me to consider buying (breaking).

PWL

January 28, 2008 02:34 PM

A wireless data plan is still too pricy for people who pay their own wireless bills. For the business traveler who gets their company to pay the bills it may not be an issue, but I'm guessing for Mac users in general the former are going to hugely outnumber the latter.

Nick

January 28, 2008 02:53 PM

Another issue with the macbook air is the lack of wired Ethernet. While many locations currently have WIFI, the Macbook air is marketed towards heavy travelers. The new Boeing 787 will feature in flight internet connectivity. While it is still in the air whether or not this connection will be wired or wireless, I would bet it will end up being wired. There are enough EMC issues with having a ton of electronic devices aboard a airplane, and those would be greatly magnified with a wifi network aboard.

@Steve: field serviceable wifi implementations are large and cumbersome. The disparate frequency ranges of the different networks make it necessary to basically duplicate the RF front end for each network, and often many of the baseband DSP components. Progress has been made towards better "adaptive" networks in the laboratory, but few practical implementations exist that don't involve duplication. A better option would be to either include a PC card slot, or sell a model for each major service provider. The antenna design issues are also major, though I'm sure apple has the internal expertise to pull it off, with the iPhone team.

Mikael Fransson

January 28, 2008 03:13 PM

Pretty sure a fairly large customer base of the Air will be using it in two places, at work and at home. Both places are usually covered by wifi. This user (a highly educated professional working is sales or management) is probably also traveling and airports (and some airplanes) have wifi.

I don't think you'll see many MBA users sitting in parks looking for open wifi networks...

/Mikael

Trideep Gogoi

January 28, 2008 03:17 PM

With the state if the Wireless industry in flux I think its a wise choice to leave out a Network dependent router. I believe a large proportion of Air users will not be willing to shell out the 70+ dollars for a cellular broadband. Not to mention the lock-in if you choose a specific technology. Of course I do lament their choice of not having an express card slot. That Im sure might have solved all current complains about the air.

Mikael Fransson

January 28, 2008 03:17 PM

A comment on Doog's comment above. Apple have had such a portable wifi router available for 3-4 years already, the Airport Express Base Station for $99. Fits in your palm and also streams music and acts as a printer server.

/Mikael

jimmy

January 28, 2008 03:25 PM

It looks like it was made for women.
it does not have a very manly look.

CB

January 28, 2008 03:32 PM

>As usual, expect the rest to follow.

Follow what? Reducing expansion ports and critical components in favor of the hope that some might be provided by a wifi network that might be available?

Most, if not all, modern laptops have wireless. A decent amount are also featuring built-in EVDO. Why should anyone follow apple's lead and make a device with less features that costs more?

George Dongarra

January 28, 2008 03:36 PM

Its called the MacBook Air. Id say that means there are no network cables. It would have been perfect if they could have made it run off of solar or fuel cells...

I remember when we didn't expect things to do everything...

K

January 28, 2008 04:00 PM

well if your traveling with a 3g mobile phone you should be able to just tether it to the air's bluetooth and boom welcome to the tubes from anywhere. I think that wireless broadband users will have a capable phone or will buy the usb adapter and thats what apple was "banking on" so the flexibility is there for those that want it but no extra space is wasted for those that done.

Albeit you wont be using apples phone both because it doesn't tether and is not 3g but I would look for both features in apples next phone, as they now have more power over the carriers and the "chip" that combines both processor power, wifi, and bluetooth with reasonable power consumption is out.

Marty

January 28, 2008 04:01 PM

It's wierd that you would criticize the WiFi, especialy as it's the high speed 802.11n.

Certainly it's a hassle to use the ethernet connector, and the performance is hardly top notch. But certainly they made the right choice. WiMax is sounding, and always has sounded, iffy. As for the mobile carriers ... you can't e serious, more contracts and charges. Not to mention the real speed is pretty dismal.

Mike

January 28, 2008 04:05 PM

How is wi-fi not ubiquitous? Almost every important institution, school, company, and public area has some sort of wi-fi connectivity. Hotels are putting in wi-fi right and left and many apartment complexes offer it free. Who actually connects their laptop to the internet via ethernet cable? Very few if you ask me. Oh yes, did the article forget to mention that Apple users seem to always have all the gadgets? I doubt the purchaser of a new Apple Air laptop is going to loose any sleep over this.

Tim

January 28, 2008 05:25 PM

Didn't you guys say this when they did not include a Floppy drive in the orginal iMac

Will Blake

January 28, 2008 05:30 PM

There are probably many people like me who have travelled and found that the best way to connect to the internet when WI-FI isn't available is to simply plug our cell phone into the USB port and away you go. Since I almost always travel with a cell phone, this seems like a weak complaint.

remember the serial port?

January 28, 2008 06:32 PM

Some pc laptops still ship with parallel ports and or serial ports. Many still ship with fast ethernet, not gigabit. And far fewer ship with firewire.

Apple is again agitating the market. I am thankful for their innovations in technology.

I have a powerbook g4 1ghz that has dvi (for my 17 inch wide screen flat panel, gigabit ethernet (to connect my 3 other macs), firewire 800 (2tb of storgae at 60MB+ per sec) and built in wireless g.

This 4 year old laptop still sells for $600 on ebay. They have a great resell value, and great durability.

I will wait until the 2nd or 3rd product cycle to pick one up...


Brian

January 28, 2008 07:03 PM

The bigger concern is the lack of a good ol'fashioned ethernet port. I'm a pretty regular business traveler, and in my experience, *usable* wi-fi exists at less than half of all business-grade hotels. (Marriott, Hyatt, etc) Ethernet is in about 95% of them.

Batman

January 28, 2008 07:16 PM

The central point of the keynote was that Apple disagreed with compromising keyboard and screen size. Remove the screen and keyboard. Add ports including a radio card slot and bundle with a next gen head mounted display resolving 1280 x 800. The head mounted display should be small enough to clip to any pair of glasses and you have a wearable platform capable of replacing both the cell phone and the laptop and serving as an unbeatable video and still camera viewfinder. Apple and others should get off the conservative kick and just go for an ideal scene like this. This may be too forward looking, but I feel this is the ultimate form factor for a platform. The iPod exists by virtue of headphones. Likewise, the next platform will owe its existence to "headphones for the eyes". The culture will rapidly accept the "look" this involves as it accepted headphone wear in public. Compelling utility overwhelms stylistic fixed ideas. Why remain a slave to 19th century keyboards, speakers and compromise displays when the technology is here to demonstrate that these things are irrelevant and limiting. Those components should be peripherals in a wide sea of 3rd party peripheral offerings. This would be an infrastructure to dwarf that of the iPod.

Jacques

January 28, 2008 07:38 PM

No so bad choice for Apple MacBookAir to use Wifi for home usage. But you will still need to use one of the 3 flavors of High speed internet mentioned bellow:

The media/press should be pushing for the use of Wimax in order to get quicker to a better, faster and more affordable Internet connection.

DSL......: old copper cable! and no flat fee
CABLE.: Fast but expensive!
WIMAX: Fast, Affordable flat fee, Portable, using new technology made by INTEL and Motorola.

Cells phone are wireless (Almost everyone has one) and so should be the Internet and VOIP.

The deployment for Wimax over DSL and/or Cable should be a no brainer choice for any tecky. Thank for http://www.clearwire.com we almost there!

Note: As far as Wifi hot spot supporting more than 100 access, they need to be replaced with Wimax as soon as possible.


Mrobert

January 28, 2008 07:47 PM

Could the MBA have anything to do with Google possibly bidding on the spectrum at government auction?

Steve

January 28, 2008 07:52 PM

Well if you consider Apple TV and iTunes as a delivery platform for movies, music, and services, and also consider that many Mac users rely on iLife and iWork for their software needs, it's not a bad play. I work for a mid sized grpahic software publisher and 80% of our sales are esd (Downloads). We even very successfully offer an app that is pver 1Gb in download size.
The Key to all of this? The target customers are used to this limited connectivity and their not the type that travel for business. They download apps and media at home or at starbucks.

I would bet Apple is targeting the coffee shop crowd and "travel" to that customer means meeting friends down the way, or taking a week long vacation that includes a hotel room with wi-fi.

I won't buy one because of the price tag and the hassle of only one usb port and one battery.

jason

January 28, 2008 07:52 PM

I think Apple's decision was not top down but bottom up; based on user studies.

I haven't use an ethernet or modem connection for years.

I've almost never used my DVD drive on my laptop for reading or burning, and

If I hadn't just bought a MacBook Pro last year I would seriously consider a MacBook Air.

I think this laptop will sell very well; once people realize Apple made the right decision.

Steve Wildstrom

January 28, 2008 08:04 PM

A number of posters have asked just where Wi-Fi is not available. With apologies to Dr. Seuss: On a bus. On a train. In a car. On a plane (out on the tarmac.)
And unfortunately often, in a hotel. Right now, I'm at the DEMO conference in Palm Desert, CA., about as techie a gathering as you can find, and there's no Wi-Fi in my room. Nor was there any when I recently stayed at the Westin St. Francis at Union Square in San Francisco and at the Hotel De Anza in downtown San Jose.

Another place where you often don;t have Wi-Fi is when you are visiting someone else's office and need to use your laptop. There probably will be Wi-Fi, but you probably cant get on it; most businesses don't offer guest access.

Seymour Butz

January 28, 2008 09:01 PM

I'm confused. Apple included at least one USB port. All current cellular modems are available in a USB form factor. In fact most of the PC Card devices are basically a USB interface to devices utilized a shared USB bus inside the card itself. The idea of adopting wildly different cellular modems, where each technology requires a different length antenna for optimal reception, in an internal slot is a serious problem. Buy the wrong laptop model and voila, you can't use vendor B, you can only use vendor A. Apple decision is obviously not to exclude markets in this manner - it's to cover all of them. Just plug in whatever flavor of cellular modem you decide is the best for you to the USB port. Problem solved.

Jared

January 28, 2008 09:19 PM

The thing that gets me it only 1 USB port!!! I use a minimum of 3 ports when using a laptop. 1 for my USB wireless mouse (I can't stand the touchpad) 1 for my Ipod, and one for my flash drive. I know that I could invest in a USB hub, but that would take up space and make the MacBookAir less portable (isn't that the main purpose of it?). Add in the low processing capabilities and storage (one more reason I need the flash drive) and it seems more and more like an expensive toy for children. Thats just my opinion though.

Paul Noble

January 28, 2008 11:04 PM

The 3G iPhone is rumored to be arriving in May and no doubt this will be promoted, with some justification, as the perfect cellular conduit for the MBA (give or take AT&T's near term 3G coverage versus other carriers and their extortionate international data roaming rates).

It would drive MBA users to the iPhone and to AT&T as their data provider, with Apple collecting as much as 30% of the gross according some accounts.

If only EDGE/HSDPA was built into the MBA what would stop one from subscribing to T-Mobile with their lower domestic data rates and vastly lower international data roaming rates?

I don't know what cellular providers are currently spiffing laptop manufacturers for cellular data activation, but I believe it is a fixed sum in the $100-200 range.

I hate to sound conspiratorial, but 30% of $60 a month into perpetuity plus 30% of truly extortionate international data roaming rates would add up to a hell of a lot more revenue for Apple!

Maybe there are some genuine engineering issues as well considering the aluminum construction of the MBA, making an off-board cellular device preferable, but given that Apple has chosen to go down the road it has with the iPhone, could the MBA be just an extension of this strategy?

Sean King

January 29, 2008 02:27 AM

Up here in Alaska it IS available on the buses, Alaska Airlines is starting to have it on there planes (granted as a test but I am sure it will take hold), and if you drive around up here in Anchorage enough you can just about get on numerous WiFi's (mostly the restaurants) for free.

At the main hospital, on campus everywhere, obviously it isn't like this in the lower 48 YET but I am sure it will be.

Sean

Matt

January 29, 2008 06:35 AM

On-line journalism is becoming a place where stupid editorial is selected for, since it drives traffic to the web-site (where suckers like you and me reply, and think we've had our say). Most professional work places, many airports and hotels, and public areas now have free, or at least cost-effective WiFi. And the intended market also has WiFi at home. Period. This isn't a machine for everyone, it's for people how move around, work in different places, need a real machine, but don't want to lug 3+ Kilos. As for needing a few "extra bits" sometimes (drive, USB hub, etc.) ... they can go in my suitcase, I don't need them on the plane/train, and that's a big help. What's so difficult to understand.

The big plus, is that this is a machine I *will* carry home each night, or take to that meeting in the next building, because it's easy to. My MacBook Pro often get's left behind (beautiful, powerful, but not used).

Darrel

January 29, 2008 11:39 AM

Why do people insist on comparing apples to oranges? The purpose of this laptop is "not" to have the most ports, the most connections, the most of everything. It has a singular purpose; to make a road warrior's life a bit easier, a laptop that will perform "essential" functions, such as web-browsing, email, chat & office-related functions. It absolutely performs within this context. It is meant as a travel companion, not a PC or Laptop replacement.
With that being said, I do agree that the omission of an ethernet port was not a good choice. Wifi is not ubiquitous enough...

Kerry

January 29, 2008 12:04 PM

It's not a problem for me because the 'Air has all of the features that I use on my ThinkPad X31, which I'm typing on right now.

I never use the X31's RJ-45 network port except on rare occasions that I travel. Then, I take a long network cable in my baggage in case the hotel lacks WiFi and has only a short cable at the desk. So for the 'Air I'd just put one of the USB network adapters on the end of the RJ-45 cable in my baggage.

My old X31 is not the first "one-spindle" machine. I keep the X31's dock, which has the DVD-ROM drive, at home for those rare occasions that I need to use it to install software. Actually, this may sound crazy, I use the *floppy* drive in the dock more than the DVD-ROM drive! (For a legacy MS-DOS machine--don't ask.)

Everywhere that I normally go has WiFi. So, the 'Air's features seem okay to me.

But if I *needed* to plug the 'Air in at work, I'd leave one of the Apple USB network adaptors and a tiny USB hub on my desk at the end of the RJ-45 cable. If I needed to plug it in at home, I'd simply put a second USB network adaptor there on the end of the home's cable.

I don't see the 'Air as a problem for me because it omits no features that I use now.

Perhaps for others, Apple could add a tiny integral hub to the USB-network adapter, preserving the USB port for a USB thumb drive even when the network is plugged in. Actually, they could do that with the external SuperDrive, too.

Adam Hall

January 30, 2008 10:33 AM

Seems like a nice product for people who WORK on the road. Its not critical to have a DVD-ROM drive when your on the road. For folks who need to plug it in at a desk or whatever you can always do that with the ethernet adapter, same with the drive. If you want to use it to watch movies then you can do that with an external drive, but it may actually encourage you to do something more productive. The portability makes it perfect for getting the job done with the least amount of hassle. I would keep the adapter and DVD thing in a bag, and bet most people find them being used far less then they thought. Missing the opportunity to easily blow time watching movies is hardly a gripe for business users, the ethernet plug could be a hassle, but that tiny adapter is not an inconvenience. I remember all the nonsense when the iMac did not have a floppy drive, all this bitching sounds like the same.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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