Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/07/airplay_dlna/

Apple's AirPlay: Bring the walled garden home

Double standards

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 7th September 2010 12:50 GMT

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.

Another Wall

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. ®