iPhone 11 Plus Wi-Fi 6 Equals Undefined?

I read a curious story this weekend based on a supposed leak about the next iPhone, currently dubbed the iPhone 111. There’s a report that the next iPhone will have support for the forthcoming 802.11ax standard. The article refers to 802.11ax as Wi-Fi 6, which is a catch branding exercise that absolutely no one in the tech community is going to adhere to.

In case you aren’t familiar with 802.11ax, it’s essentially an upgrade of the existing wireless protocols to support better client performance and management across both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Unlike 802.11ac, which was rebranded to be called Wi-Fi 5 or 802.11n, which curiously wasn’t rebranded as Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ax works in both bands. There’s a lot of great things on the drawing board for 11ax coming soon.

Why did I say soon? Because, as of this writing, 11ax isn’t a ratified standard. According to this FAQ from Aerohive, the standard isn’t set to be voted on for final ratification until Q3 of 2019. And if anyone wants to see the standard pushed along faster it would be Aerohive. They were one of, if not the, first company to bring a 802.11ax access point to the market. So they want to see a standard piece of equipment for sure.

Making pre-standard access points isn’t anything new to the market. Manufacturers have been trying to get ahead of the trends for a while now. I can distinctly remember being involved in IT when 802.11n was still in the pre-standard days. One of our employees brought in a Belkin Pre-N AP and client card and wanted us to get it working because, in his words, “It will cover my whole house with Wi-Fi!”

Sadly, we ended up having to ditch this device once the 802.11n standard was finalized. Why? Because Belkin had rushed it to the market and tried to capitalize on the fervor of people wanting fast connection speeds. The AP only worked with the PCMCIA client card sold by Belkin. Once you started to see ratified 802.11n devices they were incompatible with the Belkin AP and fell back to 802.11g speeds.

Belkin wasn’t the only manufacturer that was trying to get ahead of the curve. Cisco also pushed out the Aironet 1250, which had detachable lobes that could be pulled off and replaced. Why? Because they were shipping a draft 802.11n piece of hardware. They claimed that anyone purchasing the draft spec hardware could send in the lobes and get an upgrade to ratified hardware as soon as it was finalized. Except, as a rushed product the 1250 also consumed lots of power, ran hot, and generally had very low performance compared to the APs that came out after the ratification process was completed.

We’re seeing the same rush again with 802.11ax. Everyone wants to have something new when the next refresh cycle comes up. Instead of pushing people toward the stable performance of 802.11ac Wave 2 with proper design they are going out on a limb. Manufacturers are betting on the fact that their designs are going to be software-upgradable in the end. Which assumes there won’t be any major changes during the ratification process.

Cupertino Doesn’t Guess

One of the major criticism points of 802.11ax is that there is not any widespread adoption of clients out there to push us to need 802.11ax APs. The client vs. infrastructure argument is always a tough one. Do you make the client adapter and hope that someone will eventually come out with hardware to support it? Or do you choose to instead wait for the infrastructure to jump up in speed and then buy a client adapter to support it?

I’m usually one revision behind in most cases. My home hardware is running 802.11ac Wave 2 currently, but my devices were 11ac capable long before I installed any Meraki or Ubiquiti equipment. So my infrastructure was playing catchup with my clients. But not everyone runs the same gear that I do.

One of the areas where this is more apparent is not in the Wi-Fi realm but instead in the carrier space. We’re starting to hear that carriers like AT&T are deploying 5G in many cities even though there aren’t many 5G capable handsets. And, even when the first 5G handsets start hitting the market, the smart money says to avoid the first generation. Because the first generation is almost always hot, power hungry, and low performing. Sound familiar?

You want to know who doesn’t bet on non-standard technology? Apple. Time and again, Apple has chosen to take a very conservative approach to introducing new chipsets into their devices. And while their Wi-Fi chipsets often seen upgrades long before their cellular modems do, you can guarantee that they aren’t going to make a bet on non-standard technology that could potentially hamper adoption of their flagship mobile device.

A Logical Approach

Let’s look at it logically for a moment. Let’s assume that the standards bodies get off their laurels and kick into high gear to get 802.11ax ratified at the end of Q2. That’s just after Apple’s WWDC. Do you think Apple is going to wait until post-WWDC to decide what chipsets are going to be in the new iPhone? You bet your sweet bandwidth they aren’t!

The chipset decisions for the iPhone 11 are being made right now in Q1. They want to know they can get sufficient quantities of SoCs and modems by the time manufacturing has to ramp up to have them ready for stores in October. That means you can’t guess whether or not a standard is going to be approved in time for launch. Q3 2019 is during the iPhone announcement season. Apple is the most conservative manufacturer out there. They aren’t going to stake their connectivity on an unproven standard.

So, let’s just state it emphatically for the search engines: The iPhone 11 will not have 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, support. And anyone trying to tell you differently is trying to sell you a load of marketing.

The Future of Connectivity

So, what about the iPhone XII or whatever we call it? That’s a more interesting discussion. And it hinges on something I heard in a recent episode of a new wireless podcast. The Contention Window was started by my friends Tauni Odia and Scott Lester. In Episode 1, they have their big 2019 predictions. Tauni predicted that 802.11ax won’t be ratified in 2019. I agree with her assessment. Despite the optimism of the working group these things tend to take longer than expected. Which means Q4 2019 or perhaps even Q1 2020.

If 802.11ax ratification slips into 2020 you’ll see Apple taking the same conservative approach to adoption. This is especially true if the majority of deployed infrastructure APs are still pre-standard. Apple would rather take an extra year to get things right and know they won’t have any bugs than to rush something to the market in the hopes of selling a few corner-case techies on something that doesn’t have much of an impact on speeds in the long run.

However, if the standards bodies prove us all wrong and push 11ax ratification through we should see it in the iPhone X+2. A mature technology with proper support should be seen as a winner. But you should see them move telegraphed far in advance with adoption of the 11ax radios in the MacBook Pro first. Once the bigger flagship computing devices get support it will trickle down. This is just an economic concern. The MacBook has more room in the case for a first-gen 11ax chip. Looser thermal tolerances and space considerations means more room to make mistakes.

In short: Don’t expect an 11ax (or Wi-Fi 6) chip before 2020. And if you’re betting the farm on the iPhone, you may be waiting a long time.


Tom’s Take

I like the predictions of professionals with knowledge over leaks with dubious marketing value. The Contention Window has lots of good information about why 802.11ax won’t be ratified any time soon. A report about a leaked report that may or may not be accurate holds a lot less value. Don’t listen to the hype. Listen to the people who know what they’re talking about, like Scott and Tauni for example. And don’t stress about having the newest, fastest wireless devices in your house. Odds are way better that you’re going to have to buy a new AP for Christmas this year than the hope of your next iPhone support 802.11ax. But the one thing we can all agree on: Wi-Fi 6 is a terrible branding decision!


  1. Or I suppose the XI if you’re into Roman numerals ↩︎
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Apple Watch Unlock, 802.11ac, and Time

applewatchface

One of the benefits of upgrading to MacOS 10.12 Sierra is the ability to unlock my Mac laptop with my Apple Watch. Yet I’m not able to do that. Why? Turns out, the answer involves some pretty cool tech.

Somebody’s Watching You

The tech specs list the 2013 MacBook and higher as the minimum model needed to enable Watch Unlock on your Mac. You also need a few other things, like Bluetooth enabled and a Watch running WatchOS 3. I checked my personal MacBook against the original specs and found everything in order. I installed Sierra and updated all my other devices and even enabled iCloud Two-Factor Authentication to be sure. Yet, when I checked the Security and Privacy section, I didn’t see the checkbox for the Watch Unlock to be enabled. What gives?

It turns out that Apple quietly modified the minimum specs during the Sierra beta period. Instead of early 2013 MacBooks being support, the shift moved support to mid-2013 MacBooks instead. I checked the spec sheets and mine is almost identical. The RAM, drive, and other features are the same. Why does Watch Unlock work on those Macs and not mine? The answer, it appears, is wireless.

Now AC The Light

The mid-2013 MacBook introduced Apple’s first 802.11ac wireless chipset. That was the major reason to upgrade over the earlier models. The Airport Extreme also supported 11ac starting in mid-2013 to increase speeds to more than 500Mbps transfer rates, or Wave 1 speeds.

While the majority of the communication that the Apple Watch uses with your phone and your MacBook is via Bluetooth, it’s not the only way it communicates. The Apple Watch has a built-in wireless radio as well. It’s a 2.4GHz b/g/n radio. Normally, the 11ac card on the MacBook can’t talk to the Watch directly because of the frequency mismatch. But the 11ac card in the 2013 MacBook enables a different protocol that is the basis for the unlocking feature.

802.11v has been used for a while as a fast roaming feature for mobile devices. Support for it has been spotty before wider adoption of 802.11ac Wave 1 access points. 802.11v allows client devices to exchange information about network topology. 11v also allows for clients to measure network latency information by timing the arrival of packets. That means that a client can ping an access point or another client and get a precise timestamp of the arrival of that packet. This can be used for a variety of things, most commonly location services.

Time Is On Your Side

The 802.11v timestamp has been proposed to be used as a “time of flight” calculation all the back since 2008. Apple has decided to use Time of Flight as a security mechanism for the Watch Unlock feature. Rather than just assume that the Watch is in range because it’s communicating over Bluetooth, Apple wanted to increase the security of the Watch/Mac connection. When the Mac detects that the Watch is within 3 meters of the Mac it is connected to via Handoff it is in the right range to trigger an unlock. This is where the 11ac card works magic.

When the Watch sends a Bluetooth signal to trigger the unlock, the Mac sends an additional 802.11v request to the watch via wireless. This request is then timed for arrival. Since the Mac knows the watch has to be within 3 meters, the timestamp on the packet has a very tight tolerance for delay. If the delay is within the acceptable parameters, the Watch unlock request is approved and your Mac is unlocked. If there is more than the acceptable deviation, such as when used via a Bluetooth repeater or some other kind of nefarious mechanism, the unlock request will fail because the system realizes the Watch is outside the “safe” zone for unlocking the Mac.

Why does the Mac require an 802.11ac card for 802.11v support? The simple answer is because the Broadcom BCM43xx card in the early 2013 MacBooks and before doesn’t support the 802.11v time stamp field (page 5). Without support for the timestamp field, the 802.11v Time of Flight packet won’t work. The newer Broadcom 802.11ac compliant BCM43xx card in the mid-2013 MacBooks does support the time stamp field, thus allowing the security measure to work.


Tom’s Take

All cool tech needs a minimum supported level. No one could have guess 3-4 years ago that Apple would need support for 802.11v time stamp fields in their laptop Airport cards. So when they finally implemented it in mid-2013 with the 802.11ac refresh, they created a boundary for support for a feature on a device that was in the early development stages. Am I disappointed that my Mac doesn’t support watch unlock? Yes. But I also understand why now that I’ve done the research. Unforeseen consequences of adoption decisions really can reach far into the future. But the technology that Apple is building into their security platform is cool no matter whether it’s support on my devices or not.

FaceTime Audio: The Beginning or The End?

BlackApple

The world of mobile devices is a curious one. Handset manufacturers are always raising the bar for features in both hardware and software in order to convince customers to use their device. Yet, no matter how much innovation goes into the handset the vendors are still very reliant upon the whims of the carriers. Apple knows this perhaps better than anyone

In Your FaceTime

FaceTime was the first protocol to feel the wrath of the carriers. Apple developed it as a way to facilitate video communication between parties. The idea was that face-to-face video communications could be simplified to create a seamless experience. And it did, for the most part. Except that AT&T decided that using FaceTime over 3G would put too much strain on their network. At first, they forced Apple to limit FaceTime to only work with wireless connections. That severely inhibited the utility of the protocol. If the only place that a you can video call someone is at home or in a coffee shop (or on crappy hotel wireless) that makes the video call much less useful.

Apple finally allowed FaceTime to operate over cellular networks in iOS 6, yet AT&T (and other carriers) restricted the use of the protocol to those customers on the most current data plans. This eliminated those on older, unlimited data plans from utilizing the service. The carriers eventually gave in to customer pressure and started rolling out the capability to all subscribers. By then, it was too late. Apple had decided to take a different track – replace the need for a carrier.

Message For You

The first shot in this replacement battle came with iMessage. Apple created a messaging protocol like the iChat system for Mac, only it ran on iPhones and iPads (and later Macs). It was enabled by default, which was genius. The first time you sent an Short Message Service (SMS) text to a friend, the system detected you were messaging another iPhone user on a compatible version of software. The system then flipped the messaging over to use iMessage instead of SMS and the chat bubbles turned blue instead of green. Now, you could send pictures of any size as well as texts on any length with no restrictions. 160-character limits were no longer a concern. Neither was paying your carrier for an SMS plan. So long as the people you spoke with were all iDevice users the service was completely free.

iMessage was Apple’s first attempt to sideline the carriers. It removed a huge portion of their profitability. According to an article published at the launch of iMessage, carriers were making $.20 per message outside of an SMS plan for data that would cost about $.0125 on a data plan. Worse yet, that message traversed a control channel that was always present for the user. There was no additional cost to the carrier beyond flipping a switch to enable message delivery to the phone. It was a pure-profit enterprise. Apple seized on the opportunity to erode that profitability.

Today, you can barely find a cellular plan that *doesn’t* include unlimited text messaging. The carriers can no longer reap the rewards of a high profit, low cost service like SMS because of Apple and iMessage. Carriers are instead including it as a quality of life feature that they make nothing from. Cupertino has eliminated one of the sources of carrier entanglement. And they’re poised to do it again in iOS 7.

You Can Hear Me Now

FaceTime Audio was one of the features of iOS 7 that got swept under the rug in favor of talking about flat design or parallax wallpaper. FaceTime Audio uses the same audio codec from FaceTime, AAC-ELD, to initiate a phone call between two iDevice users. Only it doesn’t use the 3G/LTE radio to make the call. It’s all done via the data connection.

I tested FaceTime Audio for the first time after my wife upgraded her phone to iOS 7. The results were beyond astonishing. The audio quality of the call was as crisp and clear as any I’d every heard. In fact, I would compare it to the use of Cisco’s Wideband G.722 codec on an enterprise voice system. My wife, a non-technical person even noticed the difference by remarking, “It’s like you’re right next to me in the same room!” I specifically tried it over 3G/LTE to make sure it wasn’t blocked like FaceTime video. Amazingly, it wasn’t.

The Mean Opinion Score (MOS) rating that telephony network use to rate call clarity runs from 1 to 5. A 1 means you can’t hear them at all. A 5 means there is no difference between talking on the phone and talking in the same room. Most of the “best” calls get a MOS rating in the 4.1-4.3 range. I would rate FaceTime audio at a 4.5 or higher. Not only could I hear my wife clearly on the calls we made, but I also heard background noise clearly when she turned her head to speak to someone. The clarity was so amazing that I even tweeted about it.

FaceTime Audio calling could be poised to do the same thing to voice minutes that iMessage did to SMS. I’ve already changed the favorite for my wife’s number to dial her via FaceTime Audio instead of her mobile phone number. The clarity makes that much of a difference. It also helps that I’m not using any of my plan minutes to call her. Yes, I realize that many carriers make mobile-to-mobile calls free already. However, I was also able to call my wife via FaceTime Audio from my iPad as a test that worked perfectly. Now, I not only don’t use voice minutes but have the flexibility to call from a device that previously had no capability to do so.

Who Needs A Phone?

Think about the iPod Touch. It is a device that is very similar to the iPhone. In fact, with the exception of the cellular radio one might say they’re identical. With iMessage, I can get texts on an iPod touch using my Apple ID. So long as I’m around a wireless connection (or have a 3G MiFi device) I’m connected to the world. With FaceTime audio, the same Apple ID now allows me to take phone calls. The only thing the carriers now have to provide is a data connection. You still can’t text or call non-Apple devices with iMessage and FaceTime. However, you can reduce the amount of money you are paying for their services due to a reduction in the amount of minutes and/or texts you are sending. That should have the mobile carriers running scared.


Tom’s Take

I once said I would never own a cellular phone because sometimes I didn’t want to be found. Today, I get nervous if mine isn’t with me at all times. I also didn’t get SMS messaging at first. Now I spend more time doing that than anything else. Mobile technology has changed our lives. We’ve spent far too much time chained to the carriers, however. They have dictated what when can do with our phones. They have enforced how much data we use and how much we can talk. With protocols like FaceTime Audio, the handset manufacturers are going to start deciding how best to use their own devices. No carrier will be able to institute limits on minutes or texts. I think that if FaceTime Audio takes off in the same way as iMessage, you’ll see mobile carriers offering unlimited talk plans alongside the unlimited text plans within the next two years. If 50% of your userbase is making calls on their data plans, they need for all those “rollover” minutes becomes spurious. People will start reducing their plans down to the minimum necessary to get good data coverage. And if a carrier decides to start gouging for data service? Just take your device to another carrier. Or drop you contact in favor of a MiFi or similar data-only connection. FaceTime Audio is the beginning of easy Voice over IP (VoIP) calling. It’s the end of the road for carrier dominance.

iOS 7 and Labels

wwdc-13-apple-reveals-ios-7

Apple is prepping the release of iOS 7 to their users sometime in the next couple of months. The developers are already testing it out to find bugs and polish their apps in anticipation of the user base adopting Jonathan Ive‘s vision for a mobile operating system. In many ways, it’s still the same core software we’ve been using for many years now with a few radical changes to the look and feel. The icons and lack of skeumorphism are getting the most press. But I found something that I think has the ability to be even bigger than that.

The user interface (UI) elements in the previous iOS builds all look very similar. This is no doubt due to the influence of Scott Forestall, the now departed manager of iOS. The dearth of glossy buttons and switches looked gorgeous back in 2007 when the iPhone was first released. But all UI evolves over time. Some evolve faster than others. Apple hit a roadblock because of those very same buttons. They were all baked into the core UI. Changing them was like trying to correct a misspelled word in a stone carving.  It takes months of planning to make even the smallest of changes.  And those changes have to be looked at on a massive scale to avoid causing issues in the rest of the OS.

iOS 7 is different to me.  Look at this pic of an incoming call and compare it with the same screen in iOS 6:

iOS 7

iOS 7

iOS 6

iOS 6

The iOS 6 picture has buttons.  The iOS 7 picture is different.  Instead of have chiseled buttons, it looks like the Answer and Decline buttons have been stuck to the screen with labels.  That’s not the only place in the UI that has a label-like appearance.  Sending a new  iMessage or text to someone in the Messages app looks like applying a stamp to a piece of paper.  Taking all that into consideration, I think I finally understand what Ive is trying to do with this UI shift in iOS 7

Labels are easy to reapply.  You just peel them off and stick them back on.  Unlike the chiseled-in-stone button UI, a label can quickly and easily be reconfigured or replaced if it starts to look dated.  Apple made mention of this in Ive’s iOS 7 video where he talked about creating “hierarchical layers (to) establish order“.  Ive commented that this approach gives depth to the OS.  I think he’s holding back on us.

Jonathan Ive created UI layers in the OS so he can change them out more quickly.  Think about it.  If you only have to change a label in an app or change the way they are presented on screen, it allows you to make more rapid changes to the way the OS looks.  If the layers are consistent and draw from the same pool of resources, it allows you to skin the OS however you want with minimal effort.  Ive wasn’t just trying to scrub away the accumulation of Scott Forrestal’s ideas about the UI.  He wanted to change them and make the UI so flexible that the look can be updated in the blink of an eye.  That gives him the ability to change elements at will without the need to overhaul the system.  That kind of rapid configurability gives Apple the chance to keep things looking fresh and accommodate changing tastes.


Tom’s Take

I can almost hear people now saying that making future iOS releases able to be skinned is just another rip off of Android’s feature set.  In some ways, you are very right.  However, consider that Android was always designed with modularity in mind from the beginning.  Google wanted to give manufacturers and carriers the ability to install their own UI.  Think about how newsworthy the announcement of a TouchWiz-free Galaxy S4 was.  Apple has always considered the UI inviolate in all their products.  You don’t have much freedom to change things in iOS or in OS X.  Jonathan Ive is trying to set things up so that changes can be made more frequently in iOS.  Modders will likely find ways to insert their own UI elements and take these ideas in an ever more radical direction.  And all because Apple wanted to be able to peel off their UI pieces as easily as a label.