Apple: Sleek, Yet Useless

Especially at this time of year, the word “airport” generally brings to mind long waits, obnoxious staff, pointless routines, and frustration. This is true, apparently, in networking as well as in travel. “Airport” is Apple’s brand name for its wireless networking products. Last week, I bought a new wireless router, an “Airport Extreme Base Station,” and two “Airport Express” units, small boxes that plug into the wall and let you stream music wirelessly, or connect a computer, or share a printer.

I am a Mac lover. I’ve been using Macs since the original 128, and now that they’re Unix machines, I wouldn’t use anything else. But that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of Apple, and the past week has been a painful lesson in the value of open standards versus sleek proprietary hardware.

I won’t bore you with the details of my wireless setup nightmare, but trying to get these devices working was like trying to instruct Dubya on the finer points of foreign policy. A pointless exercise in frustration, trying to find the nonexistent substance underneath the slick exterior.

Apple’s sleek designs are increasingly user-unfriendly. The Airport devices are nearly featureless, with the only status indicator a single unlabeled light. Green means working, and other than that, you need to look in the book to figure out the code. Blinking amber means “unable to connect,” according to the book, although in my experience it actually meant “unable and unwilling to connect, either now or at any point in the future, so go away and leave me alone.” The reset button doesn’t.

The devices were unusually sensitive to interference from cordless phones and other devices. Once a connection was interrupted, it was almost impossible to re-establish without completely reconfiguring the devices from scratch. Configuration can only be done with Apple’s software, which is next to impossible to figure out if the standard-setup wizard isn’t appropriate for your situation. Apple’s support staff is arrogant, yet clueless; at one moment they insist that the device is incapable of doing something that it’s already doing, and at the next, give completely contradictory instructions on how to get it to do something else.

I finally got rid of the whole setup, and replaced it with a couple of Linksys devices for half the price. I can’t stream music wirelessly, but you know what? I’d rather run a cable; it’s less work and less frustration and will work reliably.

I am increasingly skeptical of Apple’s hardware skills and more importantly the philosophy behind everything they do; the iPod at least has the virtue of working flawlessly and being vastly superior to any competing device (at least until the battery runs out) but in this case the Linksys equipment is far superior, even if it doesn’t look quite as slick. And if it has fewer features, well, at least they all work. I held off buying an iPhone mainly because AT&T’s network is so inferior to Verizon’s, but I’m not sure I’d buy an iPhone at this point even if it were made for Verizon’s network. Maybe I’ll wait for the Google phone.

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