Homeless in Vancouver: Happy 20th anniversary, Wi-Fi

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      Can you imagine your phone; your laptop, or your world without Wi-Fi?

      This short-range radio standard for transmitting data without wires was decades in the making but its public debut 20 years ago as the optional AirPort-branded feature in an Apple laptop was sudden and unexpected. And its effect on consumer expectations, where laptops were concerned, was like night and day.

      At a stroke, the release of the iBook G3 with optional Wi-Fi in 1999 rendered all other laptops without Wi-Fi obsolete.

      In a very real way, the iBook G3 was every bit as disruptive in 1999 as the Apple Macintosh had been in 1984, when its graphical user interface (GUI) instantly made text-based personal computing obsolete.

      Arguably, the iBook G3’s introduction of Wi-Fi went even a bit farther, helping pave the way for Apple’s great tech disruptions in the next decade: the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

      Party like it’s 1999!

      A first generation clamshell iBook G3 in all its puffy, plastic glory, with an AirPort base station displayed onscreen.
      Apple

      The original iBook G3 (“clamshell”) was unveiled by Apple cofounder Steve Jobs during the keynote presentation at the Macworld Conference & Expo, in New York City, on June 21, 1999.

      With its its rounded, two-toned, translucent plastic and rubber carapace, the iBook G3 was styled to be the laptop equivalent of Apple’s wildly successful iMac (G3) desktop computers. The iBook was even marketed as “iMac to go“.

      Where Apple especially designed the iBook G3 to go was to school. Everything about the laptop—its colourful styling, its ruggedized construction and the integral carrying handle in the hinge—was designed to help make it a popular choice with both students and educators.

      The new Apple consumer portable certainly was popular. Six weeks after its unveiling, Apple had more than 140,000 advance orders for the iBook G3—a number that doubled by October, according to the 1999 book Apple Confidential 2.0.

      Casewise, the iBook G3 initially came in either blueberry or tangerine. It featured a full-size keyboard, a large 12.1 TFT display, and a 24x CD-ROM drive.

      Under the hood there was a 300MHz PowerPC processor, 32MB of RAM (expandable to 160MB), an ATI Rage Mobility graphics card, and a 3.2GB hard drive. Built-in connectivity consisted of a V.90 modem, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, and one USB 1.1 port.

      These hardware specs compared quite well with entry level PC consumer laptops, especially for the machine’s list price of US$1,599.

      What utterly set the iBook G3 apart from everything else on the market planet, however, was the optional AirPort wireless networking hub.

      Unlike Hula-Hoop, Wi-Fi was anything but a fad

      The magic of Steve Jobs. Introducing the iBook G3 and AirPort wireless networking at the MacWorld keynote presentation in New York, June 21, 1999.
      thinkingbricks.com

      AirPort” was the name Apple gave to it implementation of Wi-Fi, a.k.a, the 802.11b wireless networking standard, which permitted over-the-air data transfer speeds of up to 11 Mbits-per-second.

      This feature was so extraordinary for the time that when Steve Jobs demonstrated it at the launch of the iBook G3 in 1999—by connecting to the Internet and then casually picking up the iBook and walking around the stage with it—the audience went completely crazy.

      The audience further roared its approval when Jobs, fully embracing his role as a magician, passed a hula hoop over the the iBook to show that it really was connecting to the Internet without wires—as if by magic.

      After telling his breathless audience that up to 10 iBooks could wirelessly share one base station and do it from 150 feet (45.72 metres) away, Jobs quipped:

      “That’s half a football field—half a football field! That’s bigger than anybody’s house I know, other than Bill Gates and he can afford to buy two base stations!”

      The truth of what Steve Jobs said next would be borne out in just a few years:

      “This is going to be a revolution in the classroom and in the home for portable networking”

      By 2004 the Economist was writing:

      “Tens of millions of Wi-Fi devices will be sold this year, including the majority of laptop computers. Analysts predict that 100m people will be using Wi-Fi by 2006. Homes, offices, colleges and schools around the world have installed Wi-Fi equipment to blanket their premises with wireless access to the internet. Wi-Fi access is available in a growing number of coffee-shops, airports and hotels too.”

      The Economist called Wi-Fi “the signal success of the computer industry” and a rare bright spot amidst the ruins of the dot-com bubble. And not just of the computer industry.

      Wi-Fi, the British magazine indicated, came out of U.S. government research and government regulation, as much as Silicon Valley.

      But there is no denying that it was Apple that turned the “niche technology” (the Economist’s phrase) into the hottest computer feature of the early 2000s and beyond.

      Steve Jobs never pretended that Apple invented Wi-Fi, but Apple’s iBook G3 was the first personal computer to introduce the short-range radio networking technology to consumers.

      At the same time, Wi-Fi was not the first, or the only wireless networking technology in the marketplace. But the success of the iBook G3 helped make Wi-Fi the defacto standard of the personal computing industry.

      It was Steve Jobs's smart choice 20 years that led directly to Wi-Fi becoming the ubiquitous, signature feature of mobile computing that we could hardly live without today.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.

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