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Apple's AirPlay: Bring the walled garden home

Double standards

The essential guide to IT transformation

Analysis "You want computers to discover each other and just share stuff," I recall Steve Jobs saying back in 2002, as he personally demonstrated wireless music streaming at an Apple developer event.

Quite right. But does Apple's AirPlay make this more or less likely? A few years ago, Apple did the consumer electronics industry a huge favour, by introducing wireless music streaming (AirTunes) that worked beautifully simply and reliably. Now I'm not so sure. The CE business got its act together and came up with a common open standards for device discovery and streaming, and today, they work pretty well. With AirTunes becoming AirPlay, and Apple going it alone, punters now must decide between devices that may or may not support two incompatible streaming standards - which is bad news for everyone.

Let's recap the history briefly.

Eight years ago at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, Jobs personally demonstrated iTunes broadcast streaming for the first time. You know Jobs thinks something is important when he demonstrates it himself, rather than delegating it to one of his underlings. In the demo, two Mac notebooks cross played each other's music collections. Two years later, Apple introduced a dedicated streamer - the Airport Express - which in addition to being a natty portable wireless router, also provided a bridge to a hi-fi or a pair of remote speakers. It also gave the concept a name - AirTunes.

"This understated and well-priced gadget puts the onus on the real consumer manufacturers to do one better. Once again Apple has made a task which has confounded the CE industry, and Wintel, look like a walk in the park," I wrote at the time.

There were several technical parts to this puzzle. Apple had invested in developing the IETF ZeroConf discovery protocol, employing technical lead Stuart Cheshire, as way to bring the plug-and-play functionality of its AppleTalk networking to IP networks. Music streaming was a bonus. ZeroConf was given the marketing name Rendezvous, which later became Bonjour for trademark reasons. Microsoft's preferred discovery protocol was UPnP, and had been added to Windows XP in late 2001, but Microsoft didn't complete the other parts of the puzzle. Product development at Microsoft had hit its most treacly phase, and getting anything out of the door seemed difficult. Microsoft was slow to add streaming to Windows Media Player. Despite hundreds of pledges of support from the CE industry, UPnP lacked a rigorous compliance program.

The consumer electronics industry responded to Apple's 2002 demo by founding the Digital Home Working Group in June 2003, and the Group would certify end-user equipment. It gathered a strong showing of support from Japanese and Korean manufacturers, Nokia and Wintel, and became the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). For ages, progress was slow and bureaucratic, as you would expect, but took off after the spec was nailed down in 2006. With the Sony PS3 and Xbox 360 able to act as receivers, the market really took off. Microsoft belatedly added streaming to WMP, although strangely it was developed as an extension to the photo-sharing protocol. There are now a wide range of compatible devices - that pretty much just work. These include TVs, NAS drives, and speakers. It works as well with MythTV as it does with Microsoft Windows Media Player.

AirTunes was neglected. This left Apple, having set such a high standard years ago, looking somewhat laggardly. Last week Jobs announced a catch-up program, with AirTunes becoming AirPlay. With iOS 4.2 due in November, iPhones and iPod Touches will be able to do what Macs have been able to do for six years - and beam music to a pair of speakers over the wireless network. Apple will license the specifications to manufacturers to allow them to build compatible receivers, just as they do with DLNA. Denon, JBL and Bowers & Wilkins amongst those named.

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