Daniel Eran Dilger
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Ideas for Apple: AirPort Mobile

Daniel Eran Dilger
Until Apple introduces its new MacBook line there’s no new official hardware to talk about. That can’t stop us from considering major new areas of business available to the company though. One of the most promising relates to its AirPort wireless products and the potential for sharing ubiquitous WiFi service.
Apple owns a significant chunk of the retail market for 802.11n wireless base stations. How can the company leverage its market position while making its AirPort devices even more attractive? One way is to link in iTunes.

Apple’s AirPort grabs 10.6% share of 802.11n WiFi market
A Global Upgrade for Bonjour: AirPort, iPhone, Leopard, .Mac
Apple’s secret “Back to My Mac” push behind IPv6

Integrating iTunes with AirPort

The company has already dabbled with iTunes integration and WiFi in the Starbucks program unveiled a year ago. That system provides WiFi access to the iTunes Music Store for any iPhones that come into range and discover the Starbucks presence using Bonjour. Apple needs to think bigger, because it already has far more significant integration dots in line that it simply needs to connect.

1. Apple has an iTunes affiliate program open to anyone; set up an account, and you can generate content links that anyone can click to direct them to iTunes in general or to specific items in iTunes. When a use visits the store and makes a purchase, the linker gets a small commission.

2. Apple has a significant presence in WiFi with its AirPort base stations, and has full control over the firmware. It also provides and manages the WiFi driver and interface software for desktop users. This gives the company wide open and unique abilities to offer end users new WiFi features that no one else has. Microsoft doesn’t sell WiFi base stations, and other base station makers rely on users to either use the default software on Windows or Macs, or install some troll junk that often works badly.

3. Apple of course has iTunes, which is the leading source for paid downloads in music, video, and mobile apps. It also has 65 million accounts of users, tied to a billing system.

Offer Free WiFi for Affiliate Links

Add this up: the company could rather easily offer an extremely simple system that allows anyone, from coffee shops to hotels to individuals, to install turn key AirPort devices, register them with an iTunes affiliate account, and offer free WiFi service supported in part through automated affiliate commissions paid for any mobile users who access the system and make any purchases through iTunes.

This isn’t going to generate vast amounts of money for everyone who plugs in an AirPort base station, but it accomplishes two things: first, it provides an alternative to setting up free WiFi without any financial support potential at all. Second, it provides a viable alternative to the failed commercial efforts to extort $8 per hour WiFi service. Users get more free WiFi access, WiFi suppliers get a business model to support their rollout of WiFi service in addition to the attraction of users, and Apple sells more AirPort hardware.

All Apple has to do is develop and release a firmware update for AirPort that allows end users to enter their affiliate account information, and then create a secure login system that enables AirPort clients (including Macs, PCs, iPod touch, and iPhones) to find and connect to participating AirPort systems to share their AirPort WiFi signal. As with existing systems, this could easily be kept separate and secured from the home user’s internal network.

Fon is already doing part of this; it sells a mini router that participating users can attach to their existing network, which then gives them the ability to freely share their network to other participants. Others can pay a small fee to connect to this gradually expanding, worldwide network. Apple has the capacity to add millions of nodes to a similar network, and can even work in participation with companies like Fon and community efforts like San Francisco’s Meraki project.

Amazon.com: La Fonera Wireless Router

Smart Ubiquitous WiFi

Like Fon and Meraki, Apple isn’t selling WiFi; it would be acting as a catalyst to build out connectivity, offering iTunes commissions to induce users to share their existing network. Apple also has the ability to add a client-facing system for would-be signal borrowers to ensure that there isn’t abuse going on. First, it could link users by their iTunes account, so using the network would not be completely anonymous; Apple could ensure that borrowers could not hog bandwidth or perform untraceable, illegal activities.

Apple could set up smart limits that only give borrowers casual access, such as a limited amount of bandwidth per day, per network node. That would enable iPhone users to casually jump on available WiFi hotspots to check their email without allowing wardrivers to suck up significant bandwidth for things like unlimited file sharing or to set up spambot networks. Anyone abusing the system could have their account suspended from using the network.

There’s a second application for “AirPort Mobile” that I’ll address in the next segment.

Ten Big Predictions for Apple in 2008

Amazon.com: Apple Airport Express
Amazon.com: Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (Gigabit)
Amazon.com: Apple Time Capsule

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  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    As a new iPod touch owner, I can vouch that the world needs something like this!

    At the moment, I go out with the iPod fully prepared not to get any internet access at all. But I do have the helpful little app WiFinder for sniffing out any open networks as and when it appeals. WiFinder accepts lower signal strengths than the built in AirPort alert system cares to tell me about, and it does the old “does the real web load on this connection is it is just a dumb front door?” trick automatically too.

    So far my open minded WiFi benefactors have all been NETGEAR and BELKIN54G, and I suspect they don’t know any passers by can use their network either! An organised system like this article suggests would be much better.

    Or I could get a mobile. But don’t try telling me that. I get hives thinking about the recurring fees!

  • hodari

    First they need to fix the existing 1TB time capsule unit. Absolutely pathetic device – with respect to the signal to noise ratio within 100 feet!. The signal is absymal and probaly this is one of the worst Apple products I have owned. I am not the only one who is in soup. I have scoured the forums and there plenty of problems with these devices. I have packed my 1TB unit back in its original package and any one is welcome to buy it off me at 20% discount from the price advertised on the Apple Website.

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    Meanwhile all 3 Apple base stations I’ve used (an AirPort Express and two 8011.n AirPort Extremes) have been exemplorary. Strongest signals in town! Rock solid too. Everything the freebie / cheapo Linksys, Netgear, Belkin and D-Link hardware of friends has proven not to be.

    The only issue I have is slower than ideal Time Machine performance. The two AEBS are definitely slower at drive acess than a deidicated Mac on Ethernet. Otherwise it’s all good. (Just like Daniel’s reviews at AppleInsider for them.)

  • http://www.roughlydrafted.com danieleran

    @hodari – if your Time Capsule isn’t working, I’d exchange it or have it serviced under warranty. It’s just an AirPort base station with a hard drive. It’s not like they are designed to not work. If another unit doesn’t fix the problem, you should investigate sources of interference.

  • mr_kitty

    The main issues with public access points aren’t in the cost of the router, but rather:
    1. users on peer-to-peer file sharing networks sucking all bandwidth and bringing the network down.
    2. poorly configured channel setups/PPOE timeouts.
    3. users sitting in cafes for hours on end without buying anything.

    The first one is easy enough to solve by closing ports and turning off upnp. It would be nice to see apple take the lead in making this type of configuration easy and intuitive.

    The automatic channel switching on the N+ generation airports work pretty damned well (making that part moot), but the airport’s ability to maintain a constant PPOE login is sorely lacking. Even with a constant login setup, it wil constantly disconnect (at least from Verizon DSL). The only way around this is to push the PPOE login to the modem…. unfortunately with no standardization to the various modem configuration utilities, often times the only way to successfully do this is to put the network in a double-nat scenario.

    The third issue — the main barrier to cafes adopting widespread access points — can’t be addressed by any suggestions listed here. Therefor, I think the odds of apple succeeding in this market place is slim. It’d be trivial to setup, so there’s not much to keep apple from trying, but ultimately I doubt it’d have a major impact on the landscape of wireless access points.

    Instead, I’d like them to radically rethink the MacBook Air. My dream AirBook would do away with the PATA interface in favor of 64 or 128 GB of flash based storage built onto the board (much like the iPod nanos & iPhone/iTouches are). The existing PATA connections make for a dramatic bottleneck in access times and overall performance of the systems (even the SSD AirBooks I’ve worked with end up being marginally faster than the 12″ PowerBooks of days of old).

    Add to that a 4-pin firewire 400 port and I’ll buy one on the first day. As a freelance Mac consultant, I can’t do without a firewire port, and my back can’t take another couple of years of schlepping a 5 lb MacBook.

  • Realtosh

    This is quite an inventive idea. I was drawn to it the first time you wrote about it. I wish it would work because it would successfully use many pieces that Apple happens to create.

    The only problem with this idea is that Apple does own the bandwidth that you suggest that users should share.

    Commercial business internet accounts can pay for the privilege of sharing the Internet service with wifi users. Home users cannot so the same without violating the terms of service of their Internet service account provider.

    I would agree that for this idea to be truly successful, it would likely have to include the vast army of Apple base station home users. Since sharing internet bandwidth commercially would in most cases violate the terms of service of most home internet service accounts, this wifi monetizing service would have to create enough revenue to offset the additional costs of a commercial account, or an additional add-on cost that Apple would negotiate in advance with most major Internet service providers for those end users who would chose to participate in this wi-fi affiliate program.

    I love this idea. However, it has a major challenge — internet bandwidth ownership. Apple cannot deploy a system that would circumvent the rules of the owners of the internet networks upon which such an idea would depend.

    Interesting, but there are still some questions to answer.

  • qka

    OK, so I’m a business owner and I sign up for your plan of getting a commission for ITunes Store purchases made through the WiFi using Apple’s hardware in my business. How do I know that those commissions are going to be numerous enough to pay for the electricity to run the Apple WiFi hardware, let alone the aggravation of setting this all up? Also include the cost of establishing an open network for my customers, separate from the closed network I need for my business.

    While yours is a novel and interesting idea, Apple will have to do a thorough sales job on business owners to have them sign on. While those $8/hr fees are onerous, the business has to recoup the investment, plus make a profit for their trouble. Unless Apple can guarantee that, your idea is a nonstarter.

    Thank you writing this up; posting wild ass ideas like this is the best way to push the boundaries of the current system.

  • lmasanti

    I do not think that this is a good idea for Apple.

    First, like a year ago Fone’s CEO makes strides telling the world that Steve thought Fone’s product was great.
    (No evidence of Steve words)

    Second, like in the tethering application for the iPhone that run against AT&T users’ contracts, it is possible that cable/telcos providers’ contracts have stipulations to not allow sub-users or other kind of commercial uses. Maybe this is not controllable in a home, but not in a coffee shop.

    Third, as usual, any problem will be an excuse to blame Apple. And throtling p2p will rise most of that blaming,

    And the benefit will be just to sell more Airports…
    I do not see it working.

  • Realtosh

    If Apple were to buy internet bandwidth wholesale and then purvey it via wimax or some similar technology that would not involve “borrowing” internet bandwidth from all major internet service providers around the world, would be a more complete solution that would not depend on the internet networks currently serving the homes and small businesses of most Apple customers.

    Alternatively, Apple would likely need to negotiate with each and every internet service provider to include this wifi affiliate program in the terms of service of internet services accounts of Apple customers who participate in the program.

  • Realtosh

    @ qka

    I don’t doubt that Apple could make such an idea easy to implement and get a long list of willing participants. I don’t doubt the technical feasibility of such an idea, nor the willingness of many to participate.

  • The Mad Hatter


    Just think of how badly this would upset those who want to monetize internet connectivity.

    I like it.

  • Pingback: Ideas for Apple: AirPort Mobile Tethering — RoughlyDrafted Magazine()

  • Brau

    A few years ago I received a questionnaire asking me if I would share my WiFi if it meant free access from others who shared the same service. It was from a polling company and kept the identity of their customer secret.

    Compensation went like this:
    For folks in high density areas (IE: Downtown) where transient use would be high, credits would be issued to the point that the owner’s hotspot could equal free internet service to themselves. For folks like me, who live in suburban areas where transient usage is low, it would mean free access wherever I could find another subscriber and credits for borrowed bandwidth whenever someone used mine.

    I returned the poll saying I would gladly take part. (I would love to cut out the greedy cell/tel networks.) I keep hoping something will come of it and certainly Apple is well poised to provide such a feature.

  • http://ideasengine.cytv.com cy_starkman

    @ Realtosh

    Seems not many people get that part of the equation of free wifi, it connects to a landline. You get charged for that.

    I have had an idea for 15 years that works its way around this little issue.

    I might write that up elsewhere though.

    +61 (0)437 449912

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    Thought experiment: Apple becomes an Internet service provider!

    That would bridge the divide all right. Unlikely? Sure. But here’s a few reasons I’ve talked about it before with friends:

    1. Cable modems are cheap junk. The trouble I’ve had with them (many, many of them) while my Apple gear works just fine. Getting our essential monopoly of a cable company (Virgin in Britain) to come look at it after DAYS of regular outtage always required calling India. Guys: you stink!

    2. P2P pirates give the Internet a bad name, right? How about Apple slap sensible restrictions that they are actually technically competent to police on us users, and for generous bandwidth we settle for the sort of “anti-freedom” network that Stallman and The Pirate Bay both dread? If it were Apple, I’d be willing to give it a try. Virgin’s universal throttling is a crock.

    3. Can anyone say Kill the Middleman and make Apple happy? AT&T suck. Verizon suck. O2 suck. Virgin suck. It’s their nature. They are to the Internet what the labels are to music.

    It sounds like a wonderful endgame. But how long to wait?

  • babydoneabadbadthing

    I like it… a couple things
    1) setup QoS levels for those that are ‘in the network’ (people who are mobileme, itunes customers, or in the AirportMobile family. Other people get a lower tier of service (as in rate limited whenever there is a upstream bandwidth crunch). This can be set up through setting up a multi tier network (the Airport ‘private’ network, the ‘public network’ that is part of the Airport Mobile [inter]national alt-net, and the public wi-fi (the unwashed masses). This national network would need to be WPA enterprise quality to maintain necessary trust.

    I’m a personal user… but just think if you build this up… you can have LAN party like capabilities at other member houses. Like a badge of membership, walking into a home and seeing ‘AirportMobile’ pop up on your Touch WiFi, would be way cool. It could Guerilla market itself, and make for a new way of social networking.

    Also, on the personal side, if you set this up and make it such that it’s an affiliate space, setting it up for I*Tunes credits for a personal user would make it an interesting marketing scheme (Be part of the community! And get Free Stuff)

    In Minneapolis, a public WiFi could be affiliated as well. Instead of paying $19.95/month to the carried, Apple pay for you by a ‘kick-back’ to these muni (and college or not-for-profit), pennies per ‘sale’ generated through their nets.

    Finally, the data mining would need to be properly monitored… but if you can get GPS data on the connection, and the device connecting, and the available bandwidth at time of connection, Then Apple/AirportMobile could direct HW and bandwidth to locations that are gaining popularity (“Hey Business, we see you could use another Airport free on us!”)

  • http://www.nlpt.com.au GregA

    I think the Airport Mobile concept is a winner. Hopefully Steve’s meeting with FON last year means it’s somewhere in his field of interest.

    I’d take this one step further. If desired, it should be possible on every Mac (that is WIRED to the internet) to likewise share the internet via its Airport wireless card. iMacs with wireless are the most obvious candidates – but if I plug my MBP into the net, I’m happy to securely share my internet from that too.

    I’m not interested in money, but a free song every now and then would be a nice bonus. I do want to make sure it’s entirely secure, and my connection can’t be abused (I don’t have unlimited broadband!)

    In Australia, the law says something like “your wifi is only legal within your property. It is recognised that the signal will go outside that – you are not permitted to attempt to amplify this signal in any way”. And most ISPs say that it’s your own personal use only. I setup my ISPs wifi sharing system because it is secure but it’s too expensive – the result is that a neighbour saw mine and totally unlocked their wifi for anyone to use (which I’m fine with).

  • Mirage

    Wardriving is not a malicious act. Wardrivers merely find open Internet connections and tell the web community about them. They do not use those connections. If they do, they are no longer wardriving. Those people are piggybacking.


  • http://www.ccsgraphic.com CCS

    A thought that comes to mind. AT&T in the US has the cell network and the iPhone and also offers DSL service. It might be interesting if they wanted to participate in allowing their DSL customers to do something like this.

    Something that’s very unlikely, but would be totally cool, however, would be a free iPhone for those who participated. That would definitely stimulate interest.