Apple Product Manager talks AirPort

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Yesterday, Apple released its second-generation Wi-Fi compatible AirPort Base Station, which included several improvements over its predecessor. New features incorporated into the AirPort Base Station include improved compatibility, a new design and improved security.

Compatibility with AOL and more

One of the biggest compatibility issues that Apple found with its AirPort network is that customers of America Online could not use the service if they tried to connect using the AirPort wireless network. Apple worked with AOL to include support for customers to logon to the network.

"We're now able to allow our Base Stations to logon to America Online," Peter Carcione, Apple's AirPort Product Marketing Manager, told MacCentral. "They have a unique way of establishing an Internet connection, so we worked very closely with them. They're the number one ISP and we're number one in the wireless client space, so it was a natural."

Apple also added compatibility for Cisco's LEAP security method and RADIUS, which allows users to centrally manage user access control. Having this compatibility was an important step for Apple in the education and business markets. The AirPort Base Station also retains control of MAC addresses; support for 128-bit browsers; the ability to have closed networks; and support for VPN.

Users can also mix old and new Base Stations on a large network, as long as the new ones are not set for 128-bit encryption. Apple indicated that by default, the new Base Stations are not set to 128-bit encryption, although it can be changed with the Admin Utility at any time.

A new design, inside and out

For the first time since its initial release, the AirPort Base Station has received a facelift. The new Base Station is now white, instead of the graphite color of the past. But the color is the least of the new design enhancements.

Apple has incorporated a new design architecture allowing the Base Station to support more users -- now up to 50 -- while retaining its 11Mbps speed.

Apple also added a new 10/100BASE-T Ethernet port on the Base Station for Local Area Networks. The original Wide Area Network 10BASE-T port is still there, keeping the inside and outside networks separate. A firewall and 128-bit encryption have also been added to provide additional security for the network.

"The second Ethernet port allows us to keep our Local Area Network and Wide Area Network separate," said Carcione. "We've built in a Firewall to ensure the information does indeed stay separate and to prevent Web attacks."

Another design change that will be of interest to Titanium PowerBook users is with the antenna in the Base Station. Some PowerBook users have reported difficulty staying connected to a Base Station at any great distance. Although the range of the Base Station remains at 150 feet, the new antenna design allows for better reception within the AirPort's range.

"We have a new antenna design, which allows for an almost a perfect sphere around the product to provide more consistent coverage within the 150 foot range," said Carcione.

New Software for OS 9 and OS X

In addition to the hardware released yesterday, Apple also released AirPort Software 2.0 for Mac OS 9 and OS X. The AirPort software does a couple of things for your Base Station and your AirPort cards.

First, the new software will not update your first generation Base Station to enable 128-bit encryption. The first time you launch the Admin Utility after downloading and installing the update, you will be notified that there is an update for your Base Station. This update will allow you take advantage of improvements like AOL compatibility, but not the encryption.

The new software will, however, update the AirPort card installed on your computer to take advantage of 128-bit encrypted networks. The update to the card happens automatically and you will not receive notification that the update took place. By updating the card, Apple has ensured that users can connect to Wi-Fi compatible networks running with 128-bit encryption enabled. The updated card also gives users support for Cisco LEAP.

The reason for being able to update the card and not the Base Station comes down to architecture. "We have a unique card architecture, which gave us the ability to update it," said Carcione. "You can't update the old AirPort Base Station to 128-bit because they have a different architecture."

The new software for Mac OS X does not include support for a Software Base Station, according to Apple. "We've found the basic function is covered and that's having the computers talk to each other -- peer to peer. We do not yet have a Software Base Station feature in OS X," said Carcione.

Apple stays with 802.11b

With the latest update to the AirPort hardware, Apple stayed with the 802.11b wireless standard. Some users wanted to see Apple upgrade the hardware and use the next generation 802.11a wireless network. But Apple says the 802.11b fits their market right now. Compatibility with existing networks is also a concern. Educational institutions -- a growing market for Apple -- businesses and the home users have invested a great deal of money in existing wireless hardware -- at this point 802.11a just wasn't seen as the way to go.

"Where we are selling this wasn't really needed or desired -- the needs of the home are clearly covered by 802.11b," Greg Joswiak, Apple's senior director of Hardware Product Marketing, told MacCentral. "The infrastructure in schools, which is our other very large market for this product is an 802.11b infrastructure."

Apple does say that 802.11a does have its place, just not with the AirPort right now.

"802.11a has certainly got its place and right now it's a the very high-end niche part of the market," said Joswiak. "In the future it may become part of the mainstream, but we don't see that in the near-term."

This story, "Apple Product Manager talks AirPort" was originally published by PCWorld.

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