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Apple's AirPlay: Bring the walled garden home

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Having led the market years ago with such a fine implementation, technically elegant and easy to use, Apple has opted to treat streaming as another part of a walled garden. Today you can add a UPnP server to your Mac via third-party software, point the software at your iTunes music collection or iPhoto library, and enjoy your media wirelessly on devices around the house. There are several options available - I've found the Mac version of PacketVideo's Twonky to be the most consistently reliable. But why, you wonder, should you need to?

"Apple's choice to perpetuate their walled garden I feel is a setback to market adoption of what's possible with networked entertainment systems," fretted one member of the Computeraudiophile board last week. "AirPlay is less about freeing your music and video and more about a controlled expansion of the iTunes ecosystem," noted one blog. Apple's TV box is another part of the picture, and it's basically a DRM system - like the old hardware dongles that came with expensive software in the 1980s - attached to your home network.

Some might argue that once Apple decided to bet on HD video delivery, it had no choice but to create a locked-down walled garden. This argument doesn't wash. Just because the rental movies and TV shows are locked down, there's no reason your music should be, too. DRM was removed from music catalogs including the iTunes Store a couple of years ago.

The most charitable view of the walled garden I can find is that DLNA-certified equipment still doesn't interoperate reliably, so Apple is guaranteeing a "quality of experience" for its users - provided they buy the end-to-end Apple certified kit. When DLNA reaches a certain level of maturity, Apple will generously drop the walled garden approach.

But you can argue reductio ad absurdium, that if Apple cares so much, it may as well put third-party mouse, keyboard, scanner and printer manufacturers on a similarly short leash, with proprietary protocols licensed to each one. Just to guarantee that quality of experience, you know?

The walled garden adds needless confusion to the market place. The problem is that a PS3 or Xbox console are already established in many family households, which overnight become rather more Apple-phobic than they need be. Apple should be able to win in a market it doesn't control: it already makes the nicest computers and mobile playback devices.

But unless Apple and the other industry leaders can agree to play nice, it's less likely that computers will "discover each other and just share stuff", as Steve promised eight years ago. ®

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