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Wait, Are Routers … Cool Now?

Finally, someone figured out they don’t need to look like plastic torture devices. But will they work better?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

This week, New York media was invited to visit a bright SoHo storefront commandeered by Google to show off its latest batch of products. Small herds of journalists were led on a winding tour, hopping between rooms decorated with hanging succulents and a “Saint Kanye” prayer candle for short presentations on each piece of hardware.

At one point, a group of us crowded into a model Manhattan living room displaying Google Wifi, the $129 matte white router that the company revealed earlier this month. A product manager named Ben Brown began waxing poetic about the importance of the item’s design, directing our attention to a presentation on the 4K TV before us.

“We looked at influences mainly from architecture and interior design,” he said, as he revealed an image of one of New York’s most iconic architectural attractions, the Guggenheim. “We have these notions of reveals. It picks up these nice linear lines to break up the space.”

I stared blankly at the sleek cylindrical device, dumbfounded. Yes, drawing a link between one of the most elegant buildings in New York and a piece of tech hardware is exactly the tone-deaf behavior for which Silicon Valley is often criticized. But this was the first time I had ever pined for a router.

Google
Google

Though Google Wifi is not the first aesthetically inoffensive router on the market, its debut this December will certainly mark a trend. Since early last year, a number of startups have introduced their own “Wi-Fi systems” or “stations” that typically have three things in common: They consist of routers that can be bought in packs of two or three and spread all over your home for what many refer to as a stronger “mesh network,” they come with a companion app to monitor or regulate activity, and lastly — most obviously — they’re pretty. From a design perspective, they’re a far cry from the spiky antennaed dead spiders that powered the LAN parties of yore.

Dreamily named companies like Eero, Starry, and Luma want to replace those cheap plastic monstrosities made by Belkin or Netgear or Linksys that have been gathering dust behind your couch for the past three years. It’s not the worst idea, considering the frequent mysticism surrounding routers amid our wholly streaming-dependent lives. In an age when a gadget’s relevance is often determined by whether it has an app, these internet portals are surprisingly low tech. Users must interpret the strength of their precious Wi-Fi source in the same way a lighthouse might determine whether a ship in the fog needs help: by a series of blinking lights.

As Crock-Pots, air conditioners, and tea kettles get connected to our smartphones, the router has remained confoundingly adrift. (Personally, the most remarkable feature of my router is that it gets warm enough for my cat to lie on it. It’s adorable. And also maybe a fire hazard.) Along with their companion apps, those same arbitrary appliances have benefited from an increasing appreciation for design — yet another trend that escaped the router. Until now.

Alyssa Bereznak
Alyssa Bereznak

“When you step back and look at our homes in general, just about every experience runs on the internet,” says Nick Weaver, the CEO of Eero. “All the content we consume, whether it’s music, video, or all of our productivity tools. The internet is just as important as our running water and our power.”

Eero was among the first to bring to consumers’ attention the idea of an app-controlled, multiple-router Wi-Fi system that you’d be proud to display in your home. (It was also the first to unwittingly premiere a genre of advertising in which routers are photographed among dainty desert plants.) The company is named after the Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen, the man behind the TWA terminal at JFK airport, the St. Louis Arch, and Weaver’s own Illinois elementary school. Its website declares that “Wi-Fi is no longer a black box,” that “digging through the kitchen drawer and rattling off a 16-digit alphanumeric password from an old Post-it note is crazy,” and likens the ritual of resetting your router to “blowing on a Nintendo cartridge.”

Though the startup touts numerous benefits to using its pricey system — including faster connection speeds, near-weekly software updates, the ability to view which devices are connected to the internet, and parental controls — Weaver says that his products’ aesthetics are just as important.

“Wi-Fi is just radio waves, and so the more obstructions you put in the way of the radio waves, the lower fidelity the signal’s going to be,” Weaver said. “Really, the one thing that improves your home networking performance more than anything is having these things out in the open. We invested the origins of the company in great design because we’re asking people to put these everywhere in their homes.”

Some of these budding luxury-router startups found their way into the market by confronting the negative feelings consumers harbor against the standard-issue bulky equipment that internet service providers offer. As Don Lehman, head of product design at Starry, put it: “No one puts a sticker of their router company on their laptop like they do with Apple.” For Starry, part of mending that relationship meant including a direct line of communication between a customer and their router via an informational touchscreen.

“When we talked to users it was like this huge frustration of: ‘I just don’t know what’s going on. I see these blinking lights. They don’t mean anything to me,’” he said. “You have to give people an experience they’re expecting in 2016. That’s really immediate information about exactly what’s going on with every part of their system.”

As helpful as these features may be to understanding what’s connected to your device, they may not be able to solve some of the more prominent headaches associated with Wi-Fi. Though Dan Rayburn, a principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan, sees a niche market in more communicative routers, he warns that multiple devices spread throughout the home might not be able to solve problems with third-party streaming services, or help outdated technology that hasn’t been updated with the latest Wi-Fi network standards perform better.

“Wi-Fi also depends on the devices you’re using in your house,” he said. “It’s nice you’re going to drop this three-pack in your house, but is the device you’re using an older Xbox 360 that doesn’t support N wireless — only B and G? Well, then it can’t take advantage of it. And how many consumers know the difference between B, G, and N wireless? Very few.” To be blunt: It doesn’t matter how modern and beautiful your router is if you’re rocking an iPhone 3GS and a smart TV that uses a 802.11g standard.

More than anything, though, Rayburn is skeptical that the brief moment of yearning I had for Google Wifi could be widespread enough to revolutionize a market.

“Routers will never be cool,” he said. At least there’s good news for my cat.