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Apple and the Great Time Capsule Conspiracy

A lot can happen in a few weeks. It wasn’t so long ago that some of you — helped along by a few tech pundits with a conspiratorial bent — were absolutely convinced that the only way you could backup your data wirelessly with Time Machine would be to purchase a Time Capsule. This product, which combines the gigabit AirPort Extreme base station with a 500GB or 1TB “server-grade” hard drive, was introduced at the Macworld Expo in January.

When Leopard’s Time Machine was first announced, one of its promised features was, Air Disk, a wireless backup capability. This would be a boon to those of you who have Mac note-books at your home or office, and don’t want to tether yourself to a wired connection when backup time approached. Surely the MacBook Air, where “wired” is an afterthought, would benefit.

Unfortunately, Air Disk vanished without explanation. Yes, their legalese makes it quite clear that Apple is free to change, add or remove features at its discretion. I felt at the time that wireless backups were removed from Leopard because the feature just hadn’t come together quickly enough to make the initial release. Maybe it would return later.

But with Time Capsule shipping last month, and no change in the 10.5.2 update, I suppose you had to wonder whether the skeptics were right after all. But if this was Apple’s game plan all along — to force you to buy an extra appliance to get wireless backups — it would be a stupid move on their part. Besides, how did Time Capsule actually differ from AirPort Extreme — other than the presence of an internal hard drive and power supply — to allow the feature to appear in the former, and remain absent in the latter.

In the past week, Apple has tantalized us about a possible solution.

Last week, there was the AirPort Utility 5.3.1 update that, alas, didn’t bring us Air Disk. Then, on Wednesday, a pair of updates appeared in your Software Update preference pane that looked mighty hopeful. First came Apple Time Machine and AirPort Updater 1.0, and the promise of “compatibility improvements for using Time Machine with Time Capsule, as well as AirPort driver fixes.”

The second download, The Time Capsule, AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express Base Station with 802.11n Firmware 7.3.1 updates, “include bug fixes. AirPort Extreme Base Station with 802.11n* Firmware 7.3.1 also includes security fixes.”

All right, not a word about adding wireless TIme Machine backups either. However, once lots of Mac users got into the act, the evidence was clear. This was it! Apple finally made good on its long-forgotten promise to allow you to run Air Disk with 802.11n AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express base stations. Better late than never.

Unfortunately, Apple’s penchant for corporate secrecy again hurt their image. They could have sent out a press release about the pending update early on and that would be it. Even better, Steve Jobs might have added a few words about it during his Macworld Expo keynote: “We know you’ve been eagerly waiting for wireless backups with Time Machine. I want to assure you that we we have an update in the works for the latest generation of AirPort Extremes, but it may take a couple of months to finish. So just be patient.”

End of story, end of conspiracy theories.

But it didn’t happen, and this is yet another example of where Apple’s paranoia can end up being its own worst enemy. Sure, we know that event marketing has served them well. Rather than restrict major product announcements to a Macworld or WWDC, almost every Tuesday morning you look for the signs that something’s afoot at Apple. Is the online store down? Are the rumor mills rampant with news that an existing product has been declared “end of life,” or that a new part number and set of product specs “accidentally” appeared on a European site?

This isn’t to say that it always happens on Tuesday. The 802.11n version of AirPort Express, for example, debuted this past Monday. Or maybe Apple just likes to change its strategy every so often to keep us from becoming too complacent.

But the whole episode does reinforce my view that, in the end, Apple usually does the right thing for its customers. Sometimes you feel — as with the iPhone SDK — that they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to reach the proper solution. But even then I think such a plan was already under development even before the iPhone debuted and they were just looking for the proper and safe way to implement a way for developers to officially develop iPhone and iPod touch software. Maybe the negotiations with Microsoft to license ActiveSync technology took longer than expected. Microsoft, after all, even with a large check dangling in front of them, can hardly be expected to act quickly. They have far too many layers of bureaucracy.

In the end, though, I think Apple would do better to open the curtains just a little wider from time to time, because the lack of a timely statement or explanation can easily lead to negative conclusions.