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Apple needs a new version of AirPlay, not new TV hardware

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There’s been a few rumors about a possible refresh of Apple’s (S AAPL) TV set-top-box ahead of the company’s press event on Tuesday, but I would argue that it’s not the hardware that needs an update. Instead, it is time for Apple to improve AirPlay.

Ever since the launch of the iPad, AirPlay has been Apple TV’s killer app. The ability to shift media from the tablet (or an iPhone for that matter) to the TV screen has been one of the primary reasons people buy Apple TV hardware. That trend hasn’t been lost on some of Apple’s competitors, and the industry is now catching up quickly.

Apple gets out-innovated by Google

Case in point: Google’s (S GOOG) Chromecast, which the company launched in July, has taken some obvious cues from AirPlay. The device makes it possible to initiate streams straight from a mobile device or mirror content straight from your computer. Most importantly, it just works, requiring no complicated pairing after an initial setup. Just like AirPlay, one might say.

Except Chromecast goes beyond what AirPlay currently offers. The device makes it easy to share content between users that are logged into different accounts, meaning that your friends can select a video on their phone and beam it to your Chromecast without the need to do any further authentication.

Chromecast also frees up the mobile device to do other things, allowing users to close their Netflix (S NFLX) or YouTube app after they pressed the play button. Control can even be handed over from one device to another: Beam some Netflix movie from your phone to your TV, then pick up your iPad to pause playback, and resume it with a Kindle (S AMZN) Fire.

The rest of the industry isn’t waiting around

We don’t know how many Chromecast devices Google has sold so far. Even with the initial excitement around the product, it’s very unlikely that Chromecast will catch up with Apple’s 13 million sold Apple TVs any time soon. But this isn’t just about Chromecast.

Chromecast is based on a multiscreen technology dubbed DIAL that has been jointly developed by Google and Netflix. DIAL was first unveiled at CES this year, and has quickly been adopted by a number of industry players, including Sony, (S SNE) LG, Panasonic and most recently TiVo. (S TIVO) Other CE vendors are getting ready to announce support as well, and chances are that the majority of new connected TV sets, Blu-ray players and streaming boxes sold next year will be DIAL-compatible.

This doesn’t mean that all of them will offer everything that Chromecast, or AirPlay for that matter, have to offer. But consumers will be able to use their phone or tablet to control many key apps, including Netflix, YouTube, and soon also Pandora.

What’s more, DIAL leaves it up to individual developers to decide what a mobile app should do once it has launched a corresponding app on a TV device. The functionality isn’t just limited to playback and mirroring, and developers can build their own interactive mutliscreen applications. This could include real-life parties, interactive games that correspond to what’s happening on the TV screen and much more.

If Apple wants to stay competitive in this landscape, it has to beef up AirPlay to teach its Apple TV some new tricks. The company knows that, and is reportedly now looking to make it easier to share content across accounts — something that Chromecast and other DIAL devices are already capable of.

But that can’t be enough. Apple has to come out with something truly innovative to lead the charge in multiscreen media — or its Apple TV will soon look like just another box.

20 Responses to “Apple needs a new version of AirPlay, not new TV hardware”

  1. The excellent ClickToFlash extension for Safari (Mac and PC) makes it just as simple to send web video from the computer to the AppleTV. And it works on a LOT more sites than simply YouTube and Netflix!

    Not only does it block Flash video, it can replace it with HTML5, and that MP4 video is AirPlayable. And yes, it plays independently from the computer screen.

    I’ve been using it for years, helped the developer make this feature come to fruition, and it is great.

    That being said, I love my Chromecasts too. Always nice to see new entrants to the field!

  2. The reason Apple has sold so many Apple TV’s is because it’s the only way to show what’s on a teachers iPad on a whiteboard or projector without having and enormous wire attached to your iPad/iPhone. Also the same applies in the business world. Subtract those and VERY FEW people have them in their homes.

  3. Thank you for writing this article. I read a lot about Apple TV rumors regarding a new device or a potential TV set, but I rarely read about how Apple TV could actually be improved. I’d like to read more about this topic, if you have an suggestions. Also, I have some ideas on the subject, if you are interested: 1) Apple TV should have multitasking so I can watch and browse at the same time; 2) I should be able to listen with my headphones and iDevice to the audio of content playing on Apple TV (e.g., so I don’t disturb my lady when she is sleeping); 3) I should be able to reverse AirPlay with one click. While watching content on Apple TV, I should be able to click “send to iDevice,” and Apple TV should automatically route my iDevice to the specific app containing the content, pull up the specific content, and pick up where I left off. Technically this wouldn’t be AirPlaying, but it would seem just like it; 4) I should be able to create on Apple TV shortcuts to specific content similar to how I can “Add to Homescreen” with iOS Safari; 5) It should be easier to put Apple TV to sleep; 6) Apple should start developing a method to replicate certain advantages of TV: a) instant playing of content when Apple TV is turned on; b) channel surfing; and c) one button jumping back to a previous channel; 7) Apple should copy Google’s Chromecast adapter and develope an Airplay TV dongle of their own. This is something I have wanted for a while, the usefulness of which I realized after visiting my father who has a state of the art TV, but does not have and likely will never have an Apple TV. I look forward to reading your reply, if any.

  4. H. Murchison

    Not the greatest Gigaom article of the week. Factual errors abound and not that informative. Airplay is easy to share and doesn’t require any authentication other than being on the same Wifi network. Airplay has had dual screen support for a while. Good metadata support and with Mavericks it’ll be yet another display for a Mac.

    What some of us want is 5.1 support, synchronized audio (a la Sonos) and perhaps higher bitrate support.

  5. Outinnovated by Chromecast? Hardly. I have an Apple TV, Roku, and a Chromecast. The Chromecast is useless compared to the capabilities of the other two. Its only real attribute is that is is cheap. You can use apps like Twonky Bean for Roku and Roku also now plays video from iOS and Android devices and Apple has Airplay which has the best video and audio quality as it is wifi.
    Chromecast requires you to use a tablet or laptop to use it which is hardly convenient, it has terrible wifi because it’s G only, play video from Chrome tabs is awful and the video quality is not as good as the other two devices.
    So I guess rather than actually do some research you started by deciding to write an article about how the el cheap highly limited and low quality Chromecast has out innovated Apple somehow which has much more content and far better capabilities.
    Pitiful article. You should be embarrassed. But anything goes on gigaom as long as it drives page views right?

  6. The Gnome

    Wow is the author wrong about this… have you tried the Google Chromecast? Horrible spotty choppy video, no way to stream videos from your mobile device, requires bloatware Chrome browser.

    Time to remove gigaom from my RSS feed. You’ve turned retard.

  7. I have both devices, and the Apple TV is getting much more use in my house because my three kids watch most of the content (YouTube and Netflix make most of their viewing) and they don’t have a phone and don’t think of the computer. The apple remote seems to be the big difference here.

    I”m enjoying the ChromeCast, although I find most of the features you mention are rarely used. It simply provides me with a very inexpensive device for the bedroom TV. Well worth it, but as typical from tech writers you exaggerate the importance of fringe cases.

  8. You should know that EVERY SINGLE FEATURE you listed as a Google Chromecast advantage, minus one (being able to transfer streams from one device to another, mid-stream) have been available and used on Apple TVs for quite a long time. I currently have 3 iTunes accounts logged in and on a daily basis, a room full of iPhone and iPad toting friends take turns choosing what to airplay on their respective devices, with no setup on their end other than connecting to my wifi network once. Also, most apps now support switching to other apps while continuing airplay streaming and some games and entertainment apps indeed have dual display (showing 2 different things on the TV and the mobile device) and/ or interactive controls on the device. So I’m not seeing mucho advantage, if any, to Google’s version- at least not so far.

    • The big difference here is that Chromecast can initiate streaming of cloud-hosted movies from multiple accounts without further authentication. With Apple TV, you can stream iTunes rentals from the cloud, but only for the account currently signed in. So your friends can definitely come over to your house and share media, but when it comes to premium iTunes rentals only anything that’s local – which clearly limits the ability to share media. I may have a season pass for Breaking Bad, but chances are that I didn’t download the entire season to my iPhone.

      A Chromecast device on the other hand isn’t tied to a single account, so you can initiate premium content streaming from any device, with any account.

      That’s the missing feature that Apple is reportedly going to add tomorrow.

  9. Airplay has multi-screen support, this has been utilized by several games so far, Airplay also does not require you to be logged into the same iTunes account, you just need to be on the same WiFi network as the Apple TV you want to send the video to. Yes Chrome cast has a minor niche advantage of being able to control the video from a different device than the one that threw it onto the TV in the first place, but it doesn’t let you stream local video which Airplay does, and Airplay does work in the background, so once you have thrown the video to your TV you can use it to do whatever you want and the video will keep playing.

    Can Airplay be better? Of course it can and iOS in the Car is essentially a 2 way implementation of Airplay which suggests Apple is indeed working on improvements to it, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say Apple is being out innovated by Google in this regard.

  10. The only thing Apple “has to do” is ignore armchair alarmists like this author.

    How can you call three and a half years “catching up quickly”? That’s pathetic, even if you measure by the slow as snails catch-up pace usually associated with Microsoft.

    Google is just now barely getting some air in the TV space after they’ve spend years tilting at windmills with Google TV. Now that’s what I call a real fiasco.

    AirPlay and Chromecast are completely different but they can be used for many similar tasks. The bottom line is that AirPlay can do everything Chromecast can do and in a more simple, clear and straightforward way.
    The converse does not apply. You cannot show pictures or present a slide deck from your phone using Chromecast.

    If you would have paid attention you would know that there already are APIs in iOS 7 for the kind of metadata trasfer and control Chromecast does.

    Yet another Apple innovation Armageddon churnalistic article.