Apple unwires laptops

Macworld: The Mac maker counts on faster wireless LAN and a pioneering implementation of Bluetooth to set consumers drooling over its new portable computers

Wireless technologies will play a key part in Apple's plans to make 2003 the company's "year of the notebook", executives said on Wednesday, as Macworld Expo got underway in San Francisco.

Apple sees wireless, and other improved features, as the drivers behind consumers' increasing interest in laptops. "A couple of years ago, these machines probably were portable, but they were not great computers. They had limited expansion, limited input/output, the hard drives were slow, the processors were weak, the graphics were poor. Today we have got rid of those obstacles," said David Russell, Apple's director of product marketing for portable and wireless, speaking to journalists at a briefing in Paris, France.

Apple's expertise with making wireless networking easy to use has been a key part of the appeal of the iBook and PowerBook laptops for several years, since the introduction of the pioneering AirPort technology several years ago. AirPort is Apple's implementation of the 802.11b standard, also known as Wi-Fi, which has become a mainstream success in the past couple of years.

The new AirPort Extreme equipment, based on a faster WLAN standard known as IEEE 802.11g, includes several features that Apple hopes will keep it ahead of competitors. One of these is "bridging", which allows the use of several AirPort Extreme base stations to extend the reach of a single physical Internet connection.

The higher-end base station, Broadband Edition, includes a port for antennae which can extend the signal either omnidirectionally or in a single direction. Apple is offering antennae from Dr Botts, but expects other third-party manufacturers to offer additional antennae, according to Russell.

Two base stations with antennae could be used to extend a single Internet connection into two different areas of a business or campus, without the need for wiring up a second physical connection, Russell said. Two unidirectional antennae pointed at each other would allow the two base stations to be a considerable distance apart, he said.

Another first, Apple claims, is the inclusion of a USB port on the Broadband Edition base station, allowing users to wirelessly share an inexpensive printer. Most wireless LAN base stations require users to share an expensive Ethernet-based printer. "This is the only base station on the market with a USB port," Russell said.

802.11g allows for 54Mbps connections to other 802.11g devices, but is also compatible with older 802.11b equipment, which runs at about one-fifth of the speed.

The AirPort Extreme add-in card uses a new form factor, meaning that older Mac laptops will not be able to upgrade to the new technology, although Apple expects that third parties will create AirPort Extreme adapters. Apple said it is planning on keeping the older AirPort equipment on the market for the forseeable future.

Bluetooth is built into both of the the two PowerBook laptops introduced this week, and it shares the same antennae used by AirPort. Apple said it has engineered the two technologies, which use the same radio band, to minimise interference. "If there is a collision, the packet is not dropped, but is retransmitted as soon as possible," Russell said. "There is a graceful degradation of throughput. It is so minimal that you would not notice what is going on."

He said that there are no interference problems when seven Bluetooth slave devices are connected, the maximum under the Bluetooth specification.

With the new laptops, Apple has tweaked the Bluetooth software in OS X to allow users to wirelessly browse file structures on another Mac and "pull" files across to their own machine. The basic Bluetooth specification only requires "push" capability, Russell said.

For now, however, the laptops will still only connect to Ericsson's T68i mobile phone for Bluetooth-based synchronisation or Internet dial-up. "We are actively in discussion with other manufacturers on supporting more handsets," Russell said.

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