Wifi was never supposed to be a big thing, and certainly not a thing that would become as vital to a home as indoor plumbing. It was a mongrel standard that took advantage of “unlicensed spectrum,” meaning that any backyard tinkerer or rogue startup could use it. (As opposed to licensed spectrum, which the government auctioned off to big telecom companies for billions.) According to Wikipedia, the wifi spectrum was released for experimentation in the early 1985, when some scientists working for the Australian government made some tweaks that got them a patent—and a windfall for their government. In 1997, the technology got approved as an IEEE standard — 802.11, pronounced eight-oh-two-dot-eleven. But by the end of the 1990s it was still pretty much unknown, until a benefactor changed its life, and ours. His name was Steve Jobs.
I was an eyewitness to this history. It was late July of 1999, and Jobs was introducing his first portable—a clamshell-shaped, rubber-clad gadget called the iBook. It came in two colors: tangerine and blueberry. (At the time, this was a radical design statement.) I got my first glimpse of them in Jobs’s boardroom a week before the launch, with Apple’s CEO literally whisking away a black sheet that had covered them.
After he flipped their lids to reveal that they ran Mac OS, he surprised me. “Let’s go for a walk!” he said, grabbing the tangerine box. I took the blueberry. Each of them weighed over six pounds, but that was actually pretty good for the time. The browser address was set to Quicktime movie trailers: James Bond for Jobs, Austin Powers for me. And here’s the amazing part: As we circled the table, the movie clips kept playing without any wires. It was a miracle! Jobs was literally dancing with glee, in some dad-like version of a touchdown celebration. “We’ve got internet streaming media as we walk around!” he crowed. “Isn’t this why we got into this business in the first place?”
Wifi had been building momentum (though that catchy name, a marketer’s play on Hi-Fi, or “high fidelity,” wasn’t even officially adopted until later that summer). Even so, building a wifi modem directly into a mainstream product was a leap too big for even Apple at the time. In order to activate it you needed to install a $99 hardware card underneath the battery. (For a few years, having one of those cards was pretty much the only way to get wifi in your computer.) And then of course you had to buy a hotspot, a router that took an internet signal and pumped it into the air. Apple came out with its own version, called the Airport: a white, vaguely UFO-shaped mini-dome.
Over the next decade and a half, wifi found its niche. It was built into not only computers but also devices of every sort. Hotspots were everywhere, from Starbucks to actual airports. The prices of routers went down, so you could get something for $50 or $60. But in terms of solving consumer problems, routers saw very little improvement. The problems of wifi — notably, a limited range and interference with other networks — were a persistent annoyance.