Today, the market for home Wi-Fi routers is huge. Lots of companies sell a wide variety of Wi-Fi router products for all kinds of consumers. Of course, you have your PC accessories makers like Netgear, Linksys, and TP-Link in this industry, but major PC makers like ASUS and MSI also sell routers made for gamers. Even businesses like Google and Amazon, which are not primarily in the PC business, sell their own Wi-Fi routers right now.
However, over 20 years ago, back when high-speed internet connections in the home were still a relatively new development, the biggest PC company of all, Microsoft, decided to launch its own Wi-Fi hardware line for consumers. It first launched in 2002 with the MN-500 base station.
Here’s the thing: I was one of those folks who bought that MN-500 base station when my home first got broadband internet. I chose Microsoft’s product for a number of reasons; it was a known name (I wasn’t familiar with the other PC accessory companies like Netgear at the time), the product had some solid reviews, and most importantly, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It cost me just over $100 after a mail-in rebate (the normal price was still a reasonable $150).
While it has been 20 years since I owned the Microsoft MN-500 Wi-Fi base station, I do remember being simple to set up and use, and I don’t remember having any issues with it while I used it. It supported Wi-Fi 802.11b at 2.4Ghz and the speed was plenty for my place at the time. It didn’t have a lot of bells and whistles like you might find on high-end gaming-based routers. It was basic, and it worked and at the time that was enough for me.
Microsoft’s own press release announcing the MN-500 noted one thing that many routers didn’t have set up by default:
To help prevent wireless eavesdropping, 128-bit Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption is turned on by default. Network address translation (NAT) and a built-in hardware firewall help prevent attacks from the Internet. And built-in Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) support helps keeps hackers out while enabling users to play multiplayer games and conduct video and voice conversations over the Internet from any networked PC in the house.
The company also sold the MN-520 Notebook Wireless Adapter (yes, a lot of notebooks back then didn’t have integrated Wi-Fi hardware inside – it’s shocking to me, too) for $79.95, and an MN-510 Wireless USB Adapter, again for $79.95.
Initially, Microsoft’s entry into the Wi-Fi hardware market was pretty successful. Indeed, as CNET noted in January 2003, Microsoft was the number two company selling these products in the US.
However that didn’t last long, and the big reason was that other companies in that industry started selling hardware that supported the newer and faster 802.11g standards. Microsoft simply didn’t have anything ready to offer consumers with those new standards, and so its sales started to go down.
In September 2003, Microsoft finally launched its 802.11g-based MN-700 wireless router modem for $109, along with both a MN-720 notebook adapter for $84.95, and a wireless PCI Adapter for notebooks, also for $84.95. There was also the wireless adapter made especially for Microsoft’s first Xbox console, the MN-740, which for some reason was much more expensive at $139.
However, the effort to switch over to the new Wi-Fi standard was too little, too late for Microsoft. CNET reported in May 2004 that, after less than two years of selling Wi-Fi consumer products, the company had pulled the plug on that business, although it would make and sell a Wi-Fi adapter for its Xbox 360 console in 2005.
Honestly, if rivals like Amazon and Google are selling their own Wi-Fi routers, we think it might be worth Microsoft time to look back into entering this business again, especially with the new Wi-Fi 7 standard about to become official sometime in 2024.