Apple announced another cross-platform product this week, AirPort Express, and Macworld UK caught up with Apple Europe's senior director of product marketing Eric Stannow for a brief chat about its new portable wireless networking device.

Airport Express combines its base station features with support for Apple's new AirTunes music networking software to stream music from the Mac to a home stereo. The product is also the world's first 802.11g mobile base station that can be plugged directly into the wall, supports USB printer sharing and can host 10 users on its network.

Stannow likes the product: "I think it's quite intuitive that you can plug it into the wall next to your computer or your stereo; I think its quite intuitive that it is so small, smaller than a computer's power brick, so now you can wirelessly roam your hotel room," he said.

"For many users we think this will become the default choice for a wireless base station," he added. AirPort Express ships in July and costs £99 (including VAT). "A new level of affordability", said Stannow.

The difference between Extreme and Express

Apple doesn't believe Express will harm its existing AirPort Extreme product. The latter offers extra features, including: an extra Local Area Network port, the ability to connect an external range-boosting antennae; support for 50 users and a built-in modem. AirPort Express also has analogue digital audio out, a feature that AirPort Extreme lacks. AirPort Extreme will remain in useful to workgroups and education customers, Apple believes.

The company has no plans to stop selling AirPort Extreme: "We remain happy with Extreme and will have the two products co-exist" Stannow said, adding, "we think Express will be very popular with a very large part of the potential market out there." AirPort Extreme has met the company's sales expectations, he confirmed.

He explained AirPort Express' appeal: "We wanted to come out with a relatively easy-to-use solution that provided a good first entry into this market, and that's certainly what we've done.

Another cross-platform move

Apple has worked to help users on both platforms benefit from Apple's legendary ease-of-use: "I think you will agree with me that we have made progress in terms of making it easier for end users to set up. And if you look at what is available on the PC side we have made it a lot easier for the PC customers to set up their wireless networks".

AirPort Express ships with a hybrid Mac and Windows CD: "We took the same approach as we did with iTunes, which is we developed a Windows version of the software which allows us to mirror the ease-of-use and set-up that you see on the Mac side," he promised.

Users on both platforms should be simply able to plug the device into a power socket and run a cable to a stereo. iTunes will tell them that the speakers exist, allowing them to play music through that connected Hi-Fi or set of powered speakers with a single command.

"This is based on Rendezvous technology," he said.

Critics point to the lack of a remote control for AirPort Express, Stannow agreed this could be "an opportunity for third parties".

Apple's WiFi history

Apple boosted the wireless industry in 1999 when it introduced AirPort, the first mass market product to use 802.11b. It was also the first to introduce products based on the 802.11g standard – even in advance of that standards final ratification.

Some commentators criticized Apple's move to adopt the backwards-compatible 802.11g standard at the time, as others had moved to adopt yet another wireless standard, the non-backwards-compatible 802.11a.

When we took that decision there, "was still a lot of hype about 802.11a, but I think it has turned out that consumers really value the backwards compatibility of the 802.11g solution," he said. "It was a good decision, we were ahead of the market and I think we were proven right," he said.

There's a new twist to the story of Apple and wireless connectivity. Because Apple helped Mac users adopt wireless solutions before anyone else, and made it simple too: "We have a Mac user base that is much further penetrated with wireless networking than what you see in the general market: if you speak with the people who run wireless hot spots they will tell you that a disproportionate amount of connects occur on the Mac," he said.

Stannow explained the key points of AirPort Express: "It is not only a great base station, but it's the first mobile base station; it allows you to stream music and is for both PC and Mac. My firm belief is that AirPort Express will be a great success for us", he said.