AirPlay Gets Unlocked — and Apple Should Leave It That Way

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UPDATED. AirPlay’s wireless music streaming just became much more useful, thanks to developer James Laird. Laird reverse-engineered the private key Apple uses with its AirPort Express wireless router in order to let that device stream iTunes music to connected speakers, and used it to create an open-source emulator which accomplishes the same feat, called Shairport.

Until Laird’s release, the private key for iTunes music streaming was unknown to all but Apple and its official third-party partners, so only a select group of devices could stream music. AirPlay video, on the other hand, can be streamed to unofficial software for the Mac, and to third-party apps available in the App Store. Other software could stream to AirPlay-enabled devices, but not from them.

Shairport means that software solutions that can stream music from iTunes or iOS devices will be fairly easy to create, and should likely be made available for Macs, PCs, and possibly consoles and other mobile devices. Apple recently introduced Home Sharing to iOS devices, which allows you to do pretty much what Shairport allows, but only between iTunes and an iDevice capable of running the latest software. The company seems to acknowledge that its users are eager to unlock the potential of its streaming service, but is unwilling to deliver a truly open solution that would make sharing media with any device quick and painless.

Apple doesn’t want AirPlay to be open because in limiting its availability, it encourages sales of its own devices (many people I know have their homes set up for wireless sound throughout using multiple Apple TVs and AirPort Expresses), and because if it loses control over licensing, it also loses the ability to properly vet hardware partners and their products. Sub-standard experiences with AirPlay will affect Apple’s reputation, even if third-party hardware or software is actually to blame. Apple may also encounter resistance from record labels regarding the acceptable licensed use of music sold through the iTunes store when it comes to AirPlay music streaming.

But Apple would be better off leaving this gate alone, now that it’s been opened. In fact, it should go one further and make AirPlay itself freely available to all. AirPlay is a unique advantage for iOS devices, but like MobileMe, it’s one that only a small percentage of iDevice users can currently take full advantage of, so it probably doesn’t factor that strongly in a potential customer’s buying decision. If, however, a user knew that AirPlay would probably work with their TV, stereo, and any and all home computers, it might become much more important to them. Quality control will of course be an issue, but if AirPlay becomes omnipresent on third-party consumer devices, the quality of the experience using it on specific hardware will gradually become attributable to the device maker, and not to Apple.

At the very least, Apple should take a hands-off approach to dealing with this latest attempt to open up software it intends to be closed. iOS and iTunes users want AirPlay to be more useful in more places, and Shairport makes that a reality, without any major work or renegotiation of licensing terms on Apple’s part.

The original version of this article incorrectly identified the software as Shareport.

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