Oh, about that 802.11n card in your C2D Mac

From an Apple representative on the show floor: so if you have a Core 2 Duo Macintosh, you have a wireless card inside that’s capable of 802.11b, g, and – surprise, surprise – n. (Well, apparently n draft 2, which may or may not be like the final ratified standard come 2008, but will be supported in multiple Apple products.) And Apple’s going to distribute software to let you unlock the n standard in that card, which offers superior bandwidth for all sorts of data, especially and including high-bitrate video. Great news, right?

I’m not going to claim to understand this next part, which really just makes no sense to me at all, but the claim Apple’s making is that it _can’t_ give you the 802.11n-unlocking software for free. The reason: the Core 2 Duo Macs weren’t advertised as 802.11n-ready, and a little law called the Sarbanes-Oxley Act supposedly prohibits Apple from giving away an unadvertised new feature for one of its products. Hence, said the Apple rep, the company’s not distributing new _features_ in Software Update any more, just _bug fixes._ Because of Sarbanes-Oxley. If this is an accurate statement of Apple’s position, which as an attorney (but not one with any Sarbanes background) I find at least plausible, this is really crazy.

Except, of course, if it’s not so much the Act that’s stopping Apple, but Apple’s lack of desire to have to keep paperwork on software giveaways, some related concerns over obnoxious shareholders mounting needless lawsuits, or a misinterpretation of what’s really required by the law. As Wikipedia notes, it could as easily be the third option as either of the first; “some companies have initiated very time consuming and costly internal standards that are beyond what is actually required for SOX compliance.”

Conveniently, Apple can put a software updater in the box with one of its brand-new, 802.11n-ready, $179 AirPort Extreme Base Station. Or the $299 Apple TV. (Update: Amazingly, the disc doesn’t come with Apple TV – only AirPort Extreme.) And possibly other products, too. Oddly, it hasn’t updated its MacBook or MacBook Pro pages with “guess what’s in the box” updates, suggesting that you’ll need to buy more Apple hardware to get the n functionality out of your current C2D Mac model. For now. An interesting twist on a “free” feature people discovered some time ago, eh?

Update 2: Another Apple representative has added details on the Sarbanes situation: it’s about accounting. Because of the Act, the company believes that if it sells a product, then later adds a feature to that product, it can be held liable for improper accounting if it recognizes revenue from the product at the time of sale, given that it hasn’t finished delivering the product at that point. Ridiculous.

Update 3: Apple has confirmed today to CNet that it will be selling 802.11n unlock software for its Core 2 Duo Macs, and indeed cited accounting concerns as the reason for selling the feature rather than giving it away. If you’re not buying the new 802.11n AirPort Extreme, the good news is that the software will be available for $1.99 through its web site – a truly token price for an improvement of this caliber – and in light of the comments below, I’ll clarify two major points on this whole situation.

First, Apple could have opted not to include the 802.11n capabilities at all in these MacBooks, so a $1.99 unlock fee is much, much better than having to go out and buy a new dongle or ExpressCard at who knows what price. Second, my personal gripe was limited to a very specific issue: the concept of blaming accounting rules for preventing the addition of new functionality in a free upgrade to an existing product. In the context of a hugely complex laptop, especially one that shipped with the 802.11n chip inside, it would be very hard to imagine any logical outside agency as viewing this – a software upgrade to improve the existing chip’s performance – as something that should reasonably block recognition of full revenue from the laptop’s sale. Assuming that it’s acting solely with pure motives, any company of Apple’s size and importance – say nothing of its propensity for pleasantly surprising customers – should think very, very seriously about the impact of accepting such a limitation on its ability to innovate without charging customers. Giveaways are often critical to a company’s success, and who better to reward than your past loyal customers?