I bought an Airport Express this week. They’ve been around for a while now, and I’m sure they’re probably going to end up being refreshed in the near future, but I couldn’t hold off any longer. For various reasons, it made no sense to put it off any longer.
So far, I’ve been really impressed with it. Not so much what it does; it does exactly what I ask of it, which is exactly what the site said it will do. What’s impressive is the way it does it. The experience of owning it, of using it, has been excellent.
Wireless networking is complicated. It’s not designed to be user friendly. It’s not too hard to get a router/modem up and running and sharing around a nice, public, stealable connection, but fine-tuning and configuring it is a total pain for most users. The terminology is complex and unintuitive.
To make matters worse, almost every router (wireless or otherwise) has a miniature webserver in it running an administration interface. This sounds like a good idea for most users: the controls and interactions are familiar, and no special software is required. But in practice, it’s a disaster.
For starters, you expect the response time of a desktop application. But you don’t get it – you get the POST/GET loop of the web, with occasional hold ups. Double-clicking is a no-no, as well. It’s not an interface necessarily suited to the precision interaction required to configure these devices.
To make matters worse, you need to reboot them quite often, and when you do… the miniature webserver goes down. Quite often, the page refreshes to a “server not found” message. The savvy user knows to wait a bit and click reload, but the inexperienced user may not. The moment that server goes down, there’s no fallback.
So I think Apple’s decision – to use dedicated, OSX software to manage Airport devices – was probably the right one, and not just for beginner users. It allows the hardware manufacturer to retain complete control over the interface and the quality of interactions it offers. It removes the shackles of HTML, and is as speedy as possible.
Installing it was simplicity: plug it in, load the software, run the software. The software drops into configuration mode, first informing me that it needs to correct directly to the Express, and this means that I might lose my internet connection. No crossover cables here; that’s exactly the kind of interaction with the user that happens so rarely on a web-interface box.
Once connected to the Airport, I simply followed the wizard to join a current network and not to bridge it, just to act as a print/audio server. (It’s just as easy to make a new network or connect to an existing one). It knows my network WPA password already from my Keychain, so that’s not a problem. I add a password to the Airport itself, for configuration purposes, which also gets stored in my Keychain. Another click reboots the Airport, and I join my old network.
And that’s it. I plugged my printer in, and it immediately showed up via Bonjour; wireless printing was working in two minutes of plugging the printer in. I plugged our amplifier in, and I was immediately offered the option to send music to the living room via iTunes.
The Airport Express is an attractive, elegant device, in every aspect of its operation. I’m not impressed because my (admittedly basic needs) were so simply achieved – I’m impressed because every aspect of the product seems to have been crafted similarly well. (It’s not even worth talking about the packaging, given the fine art Apple have got that down to, but suffice to say, it combines a satisfying, exploratory unboxing process with clearly self-explanatory layout).
For me, this is the Apple premium in action: I may have been able to set up wireless printing and audio streaming for less than the £65 I paid, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it in 15-20 minutes. And I’m willing to pay for that.