What Happened to Apple’s Router?


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Once upon a time, in addition to Macs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, and many other devices, Apple also made internet routers.

The routers were called AirPorts, with the last iteration of them being the sixth generation AirPort Extreme. Apple’s sixth-generation AirPort Extreme was released in 2013, but the AirPort Extreme it and its AirPort brethren were officially discontinued in 2018.

What were these routers like? Why did Apple stop making them? We have these answers, and we’re here to share them with you. Read on to learn the full story!

The Early Years of the Apple AirPort

The original AirPort Base Station was released in 1999, with an update in 2001 that added a second ethernet port to the device.

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These first AirPort routers were round, showing the Apple logo quite prominently, along with three lights to show you how your connection was doing.

The round, original model of the AirPort Extreme router sits on a table near a wall.
Image Credit: Irvin Chen/Flickr

The first AirPort Extreme Base Station came out in 2003 and had the same shape as the original AirPort. However, it added an external antenna connector and a USB port to the device, and with its release, the first AirPort was discontinued.

New Beginnings and AirPort Extreme Generations

In 2004, Apple released a version of the AirPort Extreme that supported Power over Ethernet.

Related: What Is Power Over Ethernet (PoE) and What Are Its Benefits?

At this point, the AirPort Extreme could be placed in air-handling spaces to allow up to 50 users to connect to the device at once.

2004 also saw the release of the AirPort Express, a portable router that could also play music, charge iPods, and allow printers be used wirelessly. The AirPort Express saw an update in 2008 and a redesign in 2012, and its AirTunes feature preceded Apple’s AirPlay functionality.

The square model of an AirPort Express router sits beside an Apple TV, showcasing their similarities.
Image Credit: Daiji Hirata/Flickr

The AirPort Extreme was the primary router that Apple worked on and sold. In 2007, the Extreme was given a new design, and this new square shape with rounded corners saw improvements from a 802.11b/g wireless standard to a 802.11a/b/g/n wireless standard.

This new design was labeled the first generation of the Extreme, the 2003 model considered the “original.” The second generation of the Extreme was released in 2007, and this brought Gigabit Ethernet to the device.

The square model of an AirPort Extreme is held up by a hand.
Image Credit: Wesley Fryer/Flickr

An Era of Apple AirPort Extreme Updates

The third and fourth generations of the AirPort Extreme both came out in 2009, and the fifth generation came out in 2011.

These models introduced antenna improvements and the ability to use Time Machine, which let users back up an Apple computer to an external device.

This Time Machine capability reflected the 2008 release of the AirPort Time Capsule. The Time Capsule was a router with a 500GB or 1TB hard drive. In 2011 the hard drive options included 2TB or 3TB options instead. A user could use the Time Capsule to back up their Mac wirelessly via Time Machine, as well as using it to access the internet.

The AirPort Time Capsule got the same redesign as the sixth-generation AirPort Extreme in 2013. This new tower model was rectangular and much larger than previous generations. The AirPort Express, meanwhile, took on the shape of early Apple TV models in 2012.

An AirPort Extreme tower model box sits on top of a cat, which sits on a table.
Image Credit: Jiang Jiang/Flickr

End of the AirPort Line

These 2012 and 2013 redesigns and updates added speed and additional USB ports to the AirPort routers. But they were the last hardware updates ever made to the AirPort routers as well.

In the end, the team that worked on the AirPort models was disbanded by Apple in 2016. It took two years for Apple to stop producing its routers, but they were officially discontinued in 2018.

So Did the AirPort Line Stand Out At All?

The simple answer to this question is no. Apple’s AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express, and AirPort Time Capsule were never bad routers—they had sufficient speed and connectivity that they worked well in most households—but they never stood out.

The problem was that the AirPort line paled in comparison to other routers on the market. Other routers were faster and started offered improved speeds much sooner than the AirPort routers. AirPort routers, in true Apple style, were also more expensive than other routers with similar specifications.

The AirPort line had its advantages: it was easy to set up right out of the box, and its relatively attractive design meant it wasn’t an eyesore to have one visible in your home.

Back of the square model version of an AirPort Extreme router, with cables plugged in.
Image Credit: _sarchi/Flickr

But this wasn’t enough to make the AirPort a best seller. A 2003 press release from Apple shows that the company sold only 150,000 Airport Extreme products in one quarter. The presence of the press release indicates that these were high numbers for the AirPort Extreme at the time.

A 2008 report from Apple Insider showed the AirPort line was the top-selling 802.11n router for “five of the last nine months,” but that was for just that router type, not internet routers as a whole.

It makes sense that Apple decided to get out of the router game and focus on devices that sell better. But at least in developing the AirPort Extreme and its various spinoffs, Apple created tech that could carry over to its other devices.

The Legacy of AirPort Routers

The AirPort router line may be discontinued, but much of the technology Apple developed for it lives on in many other Apple devices.

AirPlay, and other wireless technology with Apple TV, came about thanks to work completed with the AirPort Express.

AirDrop and the sharing of files and data between Apple devices has its origins here too, as well as with the AirPort Time Capsule. Some Time Machine functionalities can be traced to the Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme wireless backups, too.

The AirPort routers also physically live on. Apple isn’t making new ones, but there are still firmware updates you can get for them to keep them secure and functioning. So if you still have an AirPort router, you can keep it going for a while longer.

It’s still worth looking for alternatives to the AirPort routers though. You can get better routers with newer tech and even pay less for them.

Image Credit: othree/Flickr

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