Cutting the Ties that Bind

Apple Computer holds the peculiar position of being the company that sets certain types of standards for the entire industry. It's ironic, given that Apple is perhaps best known for running a distant second behind the Wintel hegemony in terms of market share. But if you glance back through the history of the Macintosh, you can see a number of technologies that Apple ensured would be built into all computers by building them into every Mac.

Look at the mouse, much ridiculed by early PC users accustomed to the keyboard-centric DOS. Look at the 3.5-inch floppy drive that easily out-competed the earlier flexible 5.25-inch floppies. Look at the CD-ROM drive, which Apple included with every Mac before most Mac users wanted one. I'd include built-in networking here, but even today there's no guarantee you'll get an Ethernet jack on a PC.

Nevertheless, by building AirPort wireless networking into every Mac, Apple is in the process of setting another standard, albeit mostly in the slightly smaller world of laptop computers. Both the iBook and the 2000-model PowerBook G3 include built-in antennas that work with an optional AirPort card to provide better wireless-networking range and performance than is generally available via the small PC Card wireless network adapters necessary for PC laptops and older PowerBooks. Even better, integrating the AirPort card and antenna within the laptop's chassis eliminates the annoying break in the sleek lines of the laptop and the accompanying increased risk of physical damage.

But why does all this matter? Did Apple's inclusion of a mouse or floppy drive or CD-ROM drive really change the way we interact with our Macs? Not significantly. The mouse is just another way of interacting with the user interface, and the floppy and CD-ROM drives are just removable storage mediums. Wireless networking is different because it changes the way we use our Macs. The introduction of the first PowerBooks started the trend, letting us perform computing tasks wherever we chose, but the rise of the Internet seriously hampered our portability. Much of what people do today requires an Internet connection via a modem or Ethernet tether. AirPort put Apple's laptops back on top in terms of functional portability, and in the process, started the process of changing the industry one more time. It's increasingly common to see PC laptops with wireless networking adapters jutting out awkwardly, and quite a few PC users even purchased Apple's AirPort Base Station thanks to its incredibly cheap price of $300.

My exposure to AirPort wireless networking started at the end of 1999, a few months after Apple introduced the iBook and AirPort Base Station. Tonya's Mac had been a Power Mac 7600 with a pair of large monitors (our favorite Macintosh productivity enhancement of all time), but her computer use had become restricted to e-mail, Web surfing, and bookkeeping after our son Tristan was born. The 7600 still worked, but we were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with having a large computer desk cluttering our dining room, not to mention the blue Ethernet cable snaking around the floor for us to trip over and for Tristan to chew. At the same time, we needed another Mac to serve our Web database traffic for TidBits, so in a matter of days, we bought the iBook and AirPort Base Station and pressed the 7600 into Web service.

I was initially slightly worried that Tonya wouldn't like the iBook because of its smaller screen space, since she'd been an enthusiastic proponent of the double-monitor approach. But what I hadn't counted on was the incredible freedom she'd suddenly been given by the wireless networking system.

Keep in mind we're talking about a nursing mother here, and an infant who required almost constant attention from one or the other of us. Tonya's computer time came in small bits here and there, and she'd found with the 7600 that it was often too much trouble to sit down at it and start it up in the time available. Plus, there were often times when Tristan was happy to be with me, but only as long as Tonya was completely out of sight, which was difficult with the computer in the dining room.

There were times I'd come back from putting Tristan to bed to find Tonya curled up on the carpeted stairs leading down to my basement office, happily reading e-mail while I had been reading Sheep in a Jeep . And when I came upstairs in the middle of the day, I'd often see the iBook sitting in different places around the kitchen, dining room, and living room, depending on where Tonya had been able to capture a few moments. Suddenly using the Mac was fun again for Tonya, lacking the stresses of an awkward, forced location, ugly cabling, and a loud fan.

I hope you're seeing the important aspect of the AirPort wireless networking here. It wasn't that Tonya could browse the Web far out on the lawn (although she has done that, and we've actually found the iBook's range to be quite a bit greater than the advertised 150 feet). No, the important fact was that Tonya could use the iBook wherever she wanted. Most of the time that meant within 30 feet of the AirPort Base Station. Distance isn't the point -- it's cutting the tether that makes the difference. And it's a big difference. Suddenly the Mac is available to use at your pleasure and on your terms, rather than forcing you to interact with it in a single position decided upon ahead of time.

Learning to live with a wireless network has taken a bit of mental readjustment. Our laser printer sits in my office, well away from the living area where Tonya spends most of her time, and she'd been frustrated by the awkwardness of having to run downstairs to turn on the printer, dash back up to start the print job, and come back down to get the printout or discover that something hadn't printed quite right. Now she just brings the iBook down next to the printer.

And once we were watching clips of Super Bowl ads via the Web, when Tonya decided she wanted to read in bed for a while. I resisted, saying "Just one more..." until she pointed out that I could just bring the iBook upstairs and finish watching them in bed. Oh, right!

Although I have a Farallon SkyLine PC Card wireless network adapter for my PowerBook G3, I seldom use it at home (it was a godsend at the AirPort-savvy MacHack conference) because that PowerBook serves as our kitchen Mac and MP3 player, so it's already tethered to speakers, power, and a serial cable leading to a Palm dock. Adding an Ethernet cable isn't a problem. We haven't added wireless networking to any of our old desktop Macs because we had already wired our house with Ethernet. But if we were starting from scratch with new Macs and a house that didn't already have wires in the walls, we'd go for whole-hog wireless networking. It's simply the way the whole world will be in the not-too-distant future.

Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST is the editor of TidBits, an online Macintosh newsletter. For more of his monthly Wired Life columns, visit the Wired Life home page.

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