Google Needs an AirPlay Competitor, Whether It’s Building One or Not

  • Share
  • Read Later

When Google announced an update to Google TV last week, it was hard not to imagine something bigger: a full-blown competitor to Apple‘s AirPlay.

AirPlay allows iPhone, iPad or Mac users to beam audio and video to a television using an Apple TV box. So if you’re watching a video through Hulu Plus on an iPad, or looking through the camera roll on an iPhone, you can play that content on the big screen with the press of a button. The key is that there’s no setup process. You just press the AirPlay button, and it works.

That simplicity is exactly what Google is aiming for with a new feature in Google TV, which lets users send a YouTube video from their Android phones or tablets to the big screen just by pushing a button. (Here’s an interactive website from Google that simulates the feature in action.)

Although Google has dabbled with remote playback before, previously users had to pair their devices using a nine-digit code. Now, as long as both devices are on the same network, they’re paired automatically. The feature is rolling out to LG’s Google TVs now, and will come to other devices, such as the Vizio Co-Star, in the coming months

The ability to fling YouTube videos onto a television represents just a fraction of what AirPlay can do, but it’s a start. Also, this isn’t the first sign that Google is trying bridge the gap between mobile devices and TVs. In July, GigaOM reported that Google was, in fact, planning a full-blown AirPlay competitor, starting with YouTube videos and eventually becoming available in third-party apps. That rumor, based on unnamed sources, appears to be coming to fruition.

This week, GigaOM followed up on that story, with comments on the new YouTube feature from project manager Timbo Drayson:

But it is not stopping there. Drayson told me that Google is “actively working with other companies” to turn this into an open standard, which could be used on other platforms and for other apps as well.

And it’s not just about remote control functionality and beaming a video from your mobile phone to the TV we are talking about. The new protocol makes it possible for data to flow in both directions, Drayson explained, which would enable developers to build second-screen experiences that correspond to what’s happening on live TV as well. Also on the roadmap: beaming content from your laptop to your TV screen.

It’s worth noting that Google still hasn’t made any big announcements about a possible AirPlay competitor. It hasn’t even come up with a catchy, Apple-like name for whatever this thing might be. Still, it’s hard to believe that Google isn’t working on something bigger than what exists today. AirPlay is one of the big selling points for Apple TV, and it could be a major feature if Apple ever builds its own television. Meanwhile, Microsoft has built its own Xbox companion app called SmartGlass, which works on iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets.

There’s just one complication: Google’s method doesn’t work the same way as AirPlay. Instead of streaming from one device to the other, the Android device simply sends instructions to Google TV, telling it which YouTube video to play and letting the user control playback remotely. (It’s more like SmartGlass in that sense.) With AirPlay, however, the actual content is transferred between devices over Wi-Fi, so not only can you send a song or video, you can also mirror your iPhone or iPad’s display on the larger screen.

Google may have an answer for true screen mirroring in the form of Miracast, a new wireless standard that works over Wi-Fi networks. Miracast has also been hailed as an AirPlay competitor, and Google added support for it in Android 4.2. Still, it will take some time for Miracast support to take hold in phones, tablets, set-top boxes and televisions.

The question is, how will Google tie all of this together? The nice thing about
AirPlay is that it’s all-encompassing. Whether you’re sharing a photo, video, song, or mirroring your entire display, AirPlay is the catch-all, and barring DRM restrictions from some content publishers, it generally works in all sorts of applications. Building a credible Android alternative to AirPlay won’t be easy. At least all signs point to Google trying.