It was reported yesterday that Apple is disbanding the division of the company responsible for its wireless networking products: the hard drive-equipped Time Capsule and both AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express routers. The report was given additional credence by recent discounts and the fact that the products haven’t been updated in more than three years.
On one level, the decision seems like a no-brainer for Apple. The company is in the premium product basis. Back in the days when Wi-Fi was a new thing, it made sense for Apple to boost adoption rates by offering its own products; now it’s ubiquitous, there’s no reason for the company to be in what is today a very mundane product category.
But if the news is confirmed, it will sadden me a little – and worry me slightly as well …
Sadden me because the Time Capsule in particular is a great one-stop solution for fully-automated Time Machine backups over Wi-Fi. A wise friend once said that any backup regime which requires user interaction – even something as simple as plugging in an external drive – is doomed to failure. A Time Capsule ensures hourly backups anytime the Mac is at home. I’ve pointed many friends to one as a fit-and-forget backup system.
While any NAS product can do the same job, the Time Capsule is significantly more consumer-friendly than the average Network Attached Storage device.
As to why it worries me slightly, let’s look at the four possibilities I can see when Apple discontinues its routers.
First, it could simply shrug and say everyone has Wi-Fi these days, so there’s no need for it to be in that business any more. Most cable and ADSL modems are wireless-enabled out of the box, so there’s no real reason for a typical consumer to buy anything else. For those using AirPort routers to add AirPlay functionality to wired speakers, it could perhaps offer a Chromecast-style dongle.
Second, it could do what it’s done with monitors, and move out of the business itself but form a partnership to recommend one or more third-party products – including a replacement for the Time Capsule.
Third, it could add AirPort functionality to the Apple TV. That already contains most of the hardware required of a router, and most people already situate it close to their cable modem. Add a few antennas and it could fairly trivially replace an AirPort router. Perhaps the facility to connect an external hard drive could be added, or a new Apple TV product with significantly higher storage introduced.
But it’s a fourth possibility that worries me: that Apple could be trying to wean us all away from local backups altogether, and instead push us toward iCloud storage.
Apple has of course already done this for iOS devices. iCloud Backup is its recommended solution for backing-up both iPhones and iPads, with iTunes backups downgraded to an alternative. But the iCloud Drive changes introduced with macOS Sierra suggest that Apple also sees cloud storage as the future for Macs too.
As you may recall, I’m not exactly a fan of the current implementation – and more than two-thirds of you seem to share that view. But even when Apple resolves the problems, it’s still a much poorer solution than local backup for the vast majority of us who don’t spend our entire lives connected to always-on high-speed broadband.
Could you imagine buying a new Mac, for example, and doing a restore from iCloud Drive instead of hooking up a local drive? It would take forever.
Yet Apple would seemingly argue today that we shouldn’t be doing this anyway. Why restore our entire machine when the documents are (or would be, if Apple got its way) all sitting on iCloud Drive waiting for us to download them as and when we need them? Apple’s view, it seems to me, is that local storage is old tech; the cloud is king now.
So I do worry that it may not just be wireless networking boxes that Apple discontinues, but – over a longer period – the whole concept of local backup too. A future version of Time Machine may go looking for those deleted and older documents on iCloud, not on a local drive.
For Apple – a company increasingly looking to sell services in order to generate recurring income between hardware spikes – the potential revenue it could generate from selling us the necessary iCloud storage tiers must look awfully appealing.
What’s your view? Am I just being paranoid? Or does this represent one step along the way to an iCloud-first future for Mac backups – followed eventually by iCloud-only ones? As ever, please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.