AirPlay is a fantastic bundle of technology that Apple has assembled and shipped for years. Audio, video, and even a live feed of your screen can be sent wirelessly to your AppleTV using either OS X or iOS. It’s simple, and works consistently – provided you have a strong network connection.
Thanks to this technology, your AppleTV becomes a game console, jukebox, and web browser with a simple tap. Android has made huge strides in usability and out-of-the-box features in the past year or so, but this is still something that it’s lacking.
As we reported yesterday, GigaOM has published an article about a rumoured push from Google to compete with AirPlay that really got me thinking. AirPlay is more than a sum of its parts. It isn’t just screen mirroring standards like Miracast or WiDi. It’s not just a way to stream music or movies. It’s a seamless experience that enables the television to become a useful tool instead of a dumb box. AirPlay isn’t just the protocols it is built around. It’s an experience that Google needs to replicate and surpass going forward.
The key to making an AirPlay competitor is in the user experience. Standards like DLNA have been around for almost a decade, but it hasn't seen fantastic traction in the market. It's clearly not a technical issue, but a usability and availability problem. If Google wants this to work, it needs to be simple, reliable, and easy to control.
A mistake Apple made early on, and has since remedied, is that AirPlay needed you to bring up a system-wide menu. Double-tap the home button, swipe to the right, and you'll find AirPlay. That still works, but now most apps have built-in AirPlay controls. Google is very fond of putting things in pull-down menus, but this is too important. Not only do Google's built-in apps need to have apparent controls for this competitor, but it needs to be easy for third-party developers to put this control in its apps as well.
An important, but often forgotten, aspect of streaming and sharing content from your phones, tablets, and computers is user error. The last thing you want to do is accidentally start streaming adult content to your AppleTV while your kids are watching SpongeBob.
This is something that Apple fails at. While it is very apparent on iOS when you’re sharing your screen thanks to the big blue bar across the display, sadly it doesn’t clearly indicate when you’re toggled into streaming mode. You could launch a video or play a song on the AirPlay device without even knowing that you left it toggled. That is a problem. If Google wants to have a better experience on Android, this needs to be apparent. Not just a little icon in the menu bar, but a big ol’ honkin’ bar across the top to warn you that any media you launch won’t be played on the device itself.
It’s a shame that the big players in the media and software industry can’t settle on a single standard. Users will be forced to find hacks and third-party software to get all of their electronics to work together, and that’s less than ideal. Unless a clear winner emerges, as when Blu-ray triumphed over HD-DVD, consumers will need to be careful to buy hardware and software that work together, or face the consequences of kludgy and buggy hacks. If Google can get its act together with an AirPlay competitor, it might just have the momentum needed for market-wide adoption. That would be something to celebrate.