Netflix and YouTube Are Quietly Building an Apple AirPlay Rival Called DIAL

Some day, you won't need an all-Apple setup just to look up a video on your phone and send it over to your television -- and that day may actually come sooner than you think, due to a joint effort by Netflix and YouTube.

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Some day, you won’t need an all-Apple setup just to look up a video on your phone and send it over to your television — and that day may actually come sooner than you think, due to a joint effort by Netflix and YouTube.

The two companies have quietly developed a protocol called DIAL that lets users find things to watch or listen to on their phones and tablets, then load up that content on the big screen. So for instance, you could look for a movie in Netflix’s Android app, then press a “Play on TV” button to to start watching on your television without ever touching your TV remote. In a way, it’s an alternative to Apple’s AirPlay, but one that doesn’t require an iOS or Mac device plus an Apple TV.

The existence of DIAL isn’t a new revelation–a website describing the project came online in December–but a report by GigaOM’s Janko Roettgers claims that the effort is further along than anyone realized.

Current Google TV devices, such as the Vizio Co-Star, already support DIAL, and 2012 televisions from Samsung and LG have some DIAL functionality built-in. Sony has been involved in developing the protocol as well, and other vendors may be able to add functionality through software updates, possibly within the next several months.

And while Netflix and YouTube (a subsidiary of Google) are in charge of the effort, other online media companies have already signed up to take advantage of DIAL, including Hulu, Pandora, the BBC and Flingo.

Don’t get too excited yet. DIAL itself only covers the discovery element, in which a phone or tablet realizes that there’s a television or set-top box on the same network, running the same apps. It’ll still be up to app makers to build in all the consumer-facing stuff, like the buttons you’d press on your phone to begin or stop TV playback. So far, only YouTube has added this capability between its Android app and Google TV devices. In other words, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Also, DIAL doesn’t actually stream any content from phones or tablets to televisions. It merely ensures that the same apps are available on both screens, so one device can serve as a remote control for the other. AirPlay does a lot more than that; it can also beam an iPhone’s photos or video over to an Apple TV, or mirror the small screen’s display on the television. As I’ve written before, a new wireless standard called Miracast will bring this type of screen mirroring to non-Apple devices, but it’s going to be a while before connected televisions offer it as a standard feature.

The reason AirPlay works so well is that it doesn’t require users to set anything up. They just press a button while watching a video on their iPhones or iPads, and suddenly that video is on the big screen connected to an Apple TV box. And the reason that feature is available today is because Apple built the system on its own. It’s one example of where Apple’s end-to-end control is a huge advantage.

An industry-wide system like DIAL is obviously going to take more time, but the benefit is that it won’t lock users into a single company’s hardware. It seems like Netflix and YouTube have already done a lot to get major players involved, so hopefully that means a true AirPlay competitor isn’t too far off.

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