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The story behind DIAL: How Netflix and YouTube want to take on AirPlay

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Netflix (s NFLX) and YouTube (s GOOG) have teamed up to launch DIAL, a protocol that helps developers of second-screen apps to discover and launch applications on smart TVs and connected devices. The effort is already getting support from a number of notable players, including Samsung, Sony, (S SNE) Hulu and the BBC. DIAL could become a key piece in efforts to establish an open alternative to Apple’s (s AAPL) AirPlay.

YouTube and Netflix have been collaborating quietly on these efforts for months. Word first got out when some inquisitive users discovered traces of DIAL back in December. The DIAL website publicly launched with little fanfare and a brief mention on Engadget earlier this month, and now, Netflix is for the first time sharing some key details of the project with GigaOM.

The partnership: Why YouTube and Netflix teamed up for DIAL

Both Netflix and YouTube have been working on second-screen apps for some time. Netflix launched a limited second-screen integration in October, and YouTube released its first Android remote control app all the way back in 2010. The Google-owned video site has since simplified that experience, and Google product manager Timbo Drayson told me in November that YouTube’s goal was to partner with others on these efforts. “We really want to move the whole industry forward,” he said.

Netflix launched second-screen control for Sony's PS3 in October.
Netflix launched second-screen control for Sony’s PS3 in October.

Turns out that one of these partners is Netflix. “We realized in the fall of 2011 that we could create some potentially useful 2nd screen experiences,” Scott Mirer, director of product management at Netflix, told me via email this week, adding:

“At about the same time, we learned that the YouTube team was interested in much the same thing – they had already started to do some work on 2nd screen use cases. And so we approached them on collaborating… We also felt that having two major video services define and promote DIAL would help get it more widely adopted as a common solution to a common problem, vs. taking a proprietary approach. It’s been a productive partnership and we’re confident that we’ll get wider adoption because of it.”

The technology: What DIAL is all about

DIAL stands for “discovery and launch,” which pretty much sums up what the protocol is meant to do. DIAL-enabled second screen apps will be able to discover DIAL-ready first-screen devices in the same network and launch apps on them. That may sound trivial, but it’s actually solving a big problem for second screen app developers.

dial protocol
DIAL is all about bridging the gap between the first and the second screen. (Image credit: DIAL website)

Take Netflix’s current second-screen experiments, for example. PS3 owners can already browse Netflix’s catalog on their smartphone and then launch those titles on the game console, but they have to first manually launch the app on both devices. And using your phone as a remote control doesn’t make all that much sense if you still need to use that other remote control (or gamepad, in this case) as well.

With DIAL, the Netflix app on your phone will automatically discover that there is a device with a Netflix app connected to your TV. It will fire up that app, and then the two apps are free to do whatever they want — which presumably involves some healthy binge-viewing. (For the more technically-minded readers: DIAL is using UPnP multicast for the discovery piece of the puzzle, and a REST-service to launch apps on discovered devices.)

The competition: How DIAL compares to AirPlay

The beauty of AirPlay: It just works - thanks to automatic device discovery.
The beauty of AirPlay: It just works – thanks to automatic device discovery.

AirPlay is often thought of as a way to mirror content displayed on your iPad or iPhone on your Apple TV, but that’s only part of the puzzle. One key part of AirPlay is device discovery. Any iOS device will immediately discover any AirPlay-capable speaker or Apple TV in your local network. It just works, which is one of the big advantages of AirPlay over competing solutions, and one of the things that DIAL wants to achieve.

AirPlay can also send URLs from your iPad to your Apple TV to initiate playback of remote content, and of course it can mirror your iPad’s display on your TV screen. DIAL doesn’t do any of that, which was a deliberate design choice, Mirer told me:

“Once apps from the same provider are running on both screens, there are several feasible methods for implementing control protocols either through the cloud or on the local network. And not every service or application is focused on the same kinds of use cases. Rather than try to get universal agreement on these protocols and use cases, it seemed best to leave room for innovation.”

But there are other areas where DIAL actually goes beyond AirPlay’s capabilities. First, the obvious: AirPlay can’t launch any apps on your Apple TV. DIAL will also be able to detect whether an app is installed, and redirect a user to a smart TV’s app store in case it’s missing. Also cool: DIAL will be able to launch web apps on your TV, if the device supports it, which should add a whole lot of new functionality to connected devices.

The future: Where DIAL goes from here

Google TV devices apparently already support part of DIAL, and a number of high-profile CE makers are ready add their support as well.
Google TV devices apparently already support some parts of DIAL, and a number of high-profile CE makers are ready add their support as well.

One of DIAL’s little secrets is that parts of it are already out in the wild. Current-generation Google TV devices already support DIAL, and I’ve been told by third-party developers that some 2012 Samsung and LG TVs also already incorporate some DIAL functionality.

Netflix didn’t want to go into details about unannounced products or features from hardware partners, but Mirer told me that many vendors have DIAL-compatible devices or software updates that would add this functionality to existing devices in the works. “Expect to start seeing them in the next several months,” he said.

Two high-profile CE vendors in particular seem to be heavily invested in the future of DIAL. Samsung and Sony were both mentioned in the protocol’s specs. Mirer said that the companies helped a lot with practical feedback:

“Both Sony and Samsung generously invested some effort and their feedback really helped us tighten up the protocol and make it compatible with their existing software. We fully expect them to include DIAL in many of their products going forward.”

DIAL is also getting some support from content services and app makers. The project launched a registry on its website for companies that want to take advantage of DIAL much in the same way Netflix and YouTube want to, and the first ones to sign up include the BBC, Hulu, Pandora (s P)and Flingo. There are also efforts underway to bring dial to Chrome, which would make it possible to launch apps on your TV straight from your browser.

In recent conversations at CES, I’ve heard some considerable interest from others as well. And with enough support, DIAL may not just be able to take on AirPlay, but eventually reshape how we interact with digital media in the living room.

32 Responses to “The story behind DIAL: How Netflix and YouTube want to take on AirPlay”

  1. virtualCable TV

    WiFi Alliance supports Miracast as the de facto standard and their website has a large number of TVs and devices that support Miracast. Now comes DIAL which is very confusing in this context

  2. Zogar The Inedible

    I just want my portable media player to play through terrifyingly powerful speakers at home or in the truck without having to run patch cables across the room or degrade the quality by resorting to Bluetooth.

  3. lucasgonze

    This is very well factored. They deliver the maximum amount of power with the least possible amount of work.

    DLNA has been around for quite a while and is unlikely to break through. It is designed for a specific use case that is very narrow – browsing the local library on a media server computer attached to your TV. There is a new generation of the protocol but it is not widely adopted.

    So I think this is a promising piece of work. Congratulations to the developers who made it.

  4. Joao Filipe Pinto Lopes

    Seams great but it fails to address the same problem previous attempts had.
    It requires app support. Airplay does not.
    Airplay is an OS built in feature. A protocol that is always available in the background.
    If there is sound being played doesn’t matter what app is playing it. You can send the sound to any Airplay compatible device. Same goes for video. It simply WORKS.
    Airplay has a lot of flaws but no one else has been able to provide a solution that works across any app on a particular OS without needing a lot of tech know-how.

  5. cowboyjmb

    Roku actually has a remote app that works quite well, much better than the actual remote that comes with it. I don’t even use the remote anymore, just my phone.

  6. Why in the world do tech blogs keep comparing remote app systems to AirPlay??? This solves a totally different problem. Airplay obviously lets you mirror content from a DEVICE to another. If I already have the ability to watch this content like Netflix or YouTube on the receiving device then why in the world would I want to burn battery on say my phone to mirror to the other device. That’s stupid. If you’re a cord cutter you’re going to be burning battery constantly. Not to mention you’re streaming the content from the internet to your device to then stream back to another device. Again…stupid.

    What this aims to solve is giving you a full featured remote (you’re using the app itself to you have all the features) to control a content app on another device. Its not about showing content local to the device. That is really what AirPlay and Miracast excel. They would also be good for trips when you want to maybe watch some video on a hotel or relatives TV. But lets be real about that. The chances that the place you’re going will have an AppleTV or DLNA or Miracast are sort of slim. You MIGHT actually find smartTV’s with apps that you could log into and control from your device. Its not like its tough to get adoption like a hardware standard. If its a framework for instance devs have nothing to do but put it in their apps. Hell I wrote a small video app that would allow me to do some basic control from my phone.

    • Too funny, Ric… why is Apple your devil? They make some really good stuff. Sure, their ecosystem is much more closed than other options, but that’s why they’re able to deliver a superior end-end experience, which is something I really appreciate. If you’re more into a DIY ecosystem, don’t buy Apple products. You have lots of (inferior) choices!

  7. dannice240

    I love airplay (but hate it’s apple proprietary-ness), but I only use it to set up an awesome music system throughout the house. Would I theoretically be able to do this as well?

  8. This article is probably reading too much into Netflix and YouTube’s relationship on this project. Netflix makes themselves available on every platform (Bluray/DVD players, Roku, Android, Windows Phone, iOS, SmartTVs). They already get prime positioning on the Apple TV. It makes sense for them to be working on DIAL, but I don’t think it’s anything against Apple and it doesn’t sound like DIAL gets them anything AirPlay doesn’t (launching an app automatically will be a nice feature, but right now I don’t have to think about what app I’m launching and I already have an iPad as an ideal way to browse for content).

  9. H. Murchison

    Good luck.

    Airplay is dead easy to setup and works well. I’m not really into the appeal of Second Screen. I think broadcasters love it because it entices consumers to watch live and thus be subjected to more commercials. I prefer to DVR my television content and skip through commercials so Second Screen isn’t that appealing because I won’t be watching live.

    • Same. I rarely watch live TV. I even delay watching most live sports so I have a buffer I can use to skip commercials. I always use a second screen though. Sometimes it’s for a good reason like IMDb during movies, and sometimes it’s for a bad reason like unrelated distractions.

      In an on-demand future, the feed for the second screen will be synchronized to the primary screen, regardless of when you view the content… because the larger screen will become a mere display device for the content you select on the smaller screen.

  10. AirPlay will allow you to launch apps on the Apple TV. The way it works is you have an IOS device like an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad and download the remote app from Apple. Turn on home sharing and now your device functions as a remote. A remote that is better than the one that comes with the Apple TV.

      • If the App is already on the Apple TV, I don’t think AirPlay has value, nor would the ability of Netflix on your iPhone to launch Netflix on your ATV. An intelligent remote is fine.

        BTW, I don’t want anything to do with a Smart TV that runs apps. I want my TV to become more like my speakers – a dumb high-quality device with an HDMI feed for video only and wifi-enabled on/off and settings control. That’s it. No tuner, no speakers, no channel guide. Put ALL of the intelligence and control into my mobile devices. More like an intelligent monitor than a TV. Same goes for my amp and my cable box. Make Apple TV a $49 box that is only a really good Wi-Fi and ethernet receiver for my TV. Content will be managed by and flow from my Macs and iOS devices. Ok, you PC people can play too, but you might have to pay for the non-Apple-device versions of the apps.

        I know, I know, there are lots who want stand-alone products and the world doesn’t revolve around me yet.

  11. Too little too late.

    What if my brand of device-type-A does not have the same app as my other device-type-B? Then the DIAL stickers on the TV and in the app does not make sense. It will be a huge commitment to adopt DIAL when you need to make sure you have apps on all the other DIAL devices for it to meet consumer expectations of it to “just work”.

    • BitMedler

      It being an open protocol avoids this scenario. Developers and manufacturers simply include the protocol as part of a software update and you have it. IF you don’t have the app on the device you want to send content to, DIAL will push you to the appropriate app store to immediately “upgrade” your system.

      This is completely in line with the trajectory technology is taking by breaking what consumers WANT to do out of what manufacturers – like Apple – want you to do.

      DIAL is like the web – open due to free, wide open standards. AirPlay (like most of Apple) is like AOL – closed, proprietary and inflexible.

      If the web has proven anything, it’s that open standards are the key to innovation and adoption.

      • Open standards always win, you say? That explains why Microsoft Windows/Office, OS X, iPods, iPads all dominate their market. OH WAIT NO, it’s the opposite.

        And when you talk about web, do you remember this proprietary thing called Flash? You know the one that Apple basically freed us from? That must really cause confusion inside to know that it was Apple that got everyone onto HTML5 video.

        The thing these open standards so far are missing that AirPlay has is that AirPlay actually works well and does what it says. On the other hand we have DLNA which is like pulling teeth in comparison.

      • Tim Meyer

        I would add devs writing directly to Webkit causing all sorts of heartache to Microsoft IE which ironically follows web standards.

        Standards seem to be only good in theory.