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Reality Absorption Field: Apple's wireless way

While it was announced amidst the October departure of Scott Forstall, the news that Bob Mansfield would un-retire to oversee all of the company's semiconductor and wireless work didn't get as much attention. Obviously, we are moving toward an increasingly wireless future. The technologies Apple chooses to adopt and how it adopts them will play big roles in terms of its platforms' capabilities and compatibility.

Short-Range

In 2012, we saw Apple gain a lot of attention for a new Lightning cable connector to replace its venerable 30-pin iPod interface. But while iPhone watchers were contemplating adapters and docks, phones from competitors such as HTC and Nokia adopted wireless charging and NFC. Apple passed on NFC in the iPhone 5 -- somewhat justifiably, from a pure payments perspective. Nonetheless, NFC has other applications as Samsung has been showing off in its commercials.

While a bit late to the Bluetooth party, Apple has become an enthusiastic backer, supporting the technology well throughout the product line and being one of the first companies to implement Bluetooth Smart, the low-power version of the technology that is now finding its way into such objects as activity monitors, watches, and even light bulbs. While Apple will likely eventually adopt NFC, there is work going on in the Bluetooth camp on standards that could compete with NFC. Apple, of course, would prefer to deal with one radio instead of two.

Medium-Range

With the introduction of its first AirPort cards for the iBook way back in 1999, Apple led the industry in supporting Wi-Fi. Apple's efforts helped push the technology ahead of what was then a promising competing standard called HomeRF, backed by Intel. Nowadays, Wi-Fi is available throughout Apple's product line as it is for many other tech companies, and Apple has built AirPlay on top of it.

It seems likely that Apple will support the next generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac. It remains to be seen, though, if Apple will support Wi-Fi Display and Wi-Fi Direct as it has adopted its own alternatives in AirPlay and AirDrop (although these are not necessarily mutually exclusive). AirDrop in particular seems like a promising way to easily move files between a Mac and iDevice without having to go through iTunes; hopefully this will be addressed now that the OS X and iOS teams are united under one manager.

There are also other "whole-home" wireless technologies that Apple has heretofore passed on such as Zigbee or Z-Wave. These low-power radio technologies are at the heart of many security and home automation installations. But Apple will likely continue to refrain. Wi-Fi gateways can bridge control between iPhones and these products, and Bluetooth is becoming more competitive in terms of battery life.

Long-Range

In 2012, the third-generation iPad marked Apple's late jump onto the LTE bandwagon and the strong indication that the 4G technology would be the wireless foundation of the iPhone, which it was. LTE also made its way into the iPad mini, serving as a differentiator from inexpensive 7" tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet HD that lacked any cellular radio.

Apple is already supporting LTE on many different bands across the three models of iPhones and iPads. More may be coming in the next generation of cellular-equipped products now that T-Mobile USA seems set to carry the company's products in 2013. However, it likely also has its eye on technologies, such as DIDO from Rearden Labs, that claim to leapfrog well-accepted standards like LTE.

As wireless technologies continue to work their way into more objects and become cheaper and faster, Mac and iOS apps will be able to monitor, communicate with, and control a broader array of devices than ever before.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin. Views expressed in Reality Absorption Field are his own.

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