AirPort for iBooks Not Ready for Takeoff

If you've been anticipating Apple Computer Inc.'s AirPort wireless technology to get your users' iBooks connected to the Internet, you should plan to continue waiting.

When I reviewed Apple's iBook, the complementary AirPort products were not yet available (see "iBook rivals low-cost PC notebooks," www.infoworld.com/printlinks). After getting my hands on the first two products, it is clear that the company should have left AirPort at the gate a bit longer. They offer an interesting glimpse at the potential of untethered connectivity, but I recommend waiting until Apple makes certain crucial improvements.

This release of AirPort comprises the AirPort Card and Base Station, a combo that uses an 802.11 Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum standard to connect wirelessly at speeds as fast as 11Mbps. At $299 for the Base Station and $99 for an AirPort Card, the technology is much less expensive than comparable PC products.

The Card can be added to any Apple computer with a built-in antenna, including iBooks and certain G4s and iMacs. The PC Card-sized device connects to the iBook via a slot beneath the laptop's pop-up keyboard. The compact, accessible design impressed me, and any user could handle the installation.

The flying saucer-shaped silver Base Station has an equally unique design and includes built-in Ethernet and a 56Kbps modem. When attached to a network or dialed-in to an ISP, the Base Station creates a wireless LAN for any AirPort-enabled computer within a theoretical 150 feet.

That speaks of the potential of the AirPort, as well as wireless technology in general. I was excited about lounging in my backyard and popping off an e-mail, but AirPort could be helpful in less recreational settings also.

With AirPort, temporary offices and those with a large number of mobile workers could share one high-speed connection without excessive network planning and administration costs. Classroom and laboratory settings are a natural for wireless LANs as well. To capture these markets, Apple should move quickly to improve the setup and usability of its new technology.

I had no trouble installing the AirPort software on my iBook and using it to connect to and configure the Base Station. I had many problems, however, connecting the Base Station to my ISP. Apple provides several warnings in the Base Station's documentation that the product does not work with ISPs that use "nonstandard methods" to connect to the Internet, including America Online, which hardly makes AirPort a solution for everyone. I called my ISP to confirm that it uses AirPort-acceptable methods, but the problems persisted.

Lack of feedback from the Base Station and iBook made the situation especially frustrating and difficult to diagnose. I did not even know if the Base Station's modem had a dial tone. It does not have a speaker, and the three indicator lights on the front of the unit were not helpful. The iBook's AirPort software offered no information about the status of a connection either.

An Apple product manager talked me through the problem. The AirPort Setup Assistant had transferred my iBook's existing dial-up settings to the Base Station, settings that did not contain a DNS address needed by the Base Station. So much for plug-and-play.

Even after everything was working, the AirPort application remained at odds with the TCP/IP and Remote Access control panels, undoing settings and dialing out without being asked. The Apple manager says issues regarding setup and insufficient feedback will be addressed in the next version of AirPort software, due in early 2000.

I have some positive news about the AirPort. In addition to its attractive price tag, its security is good. AirPort networks are password-protected, and administrators can prevent users from changing Base Station settings. More important, range and bandwidth were pretty much as advertised. I had a low but steady signal even sitting in my car more than 100 feet from my front door. And using the Base Station as a wireless Ethernet bridge, I experienced similar throughput.

Chip Brookshaw (chipb@sirius.com) is a free-lance technology writer who covers handheld and wireless products.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FAIR

AirPort Card and Base Station

Summary: Apple's new wireless technology is intriguing, but the first two products are not fully baked. Hardware design is strong, but the software does not integrate well with existing network settings and offers little feedback about connections.

Business Case: If setup and usability issues are resolved, AirPort technology could be a good choice for small offices that need to share one Internet connection without incurring substantial administration costs. For now, wait until Apple works out the kinks.

Pros:

+ Good range and bandwidth

+ Excellent price

+ Adequate security

+ Good hardware design

Cons:

- Insufficient feedback

- Networking software conflicts

- Error-prone setup

- Limited ISP compatibility

Cost: $99, AirPort Card; $299, Base StationPlatform(s): Mac OS 8.6Apple Computer Inc. Cupertino, Calif.(408) 996-1010, www.apple.com

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