Amongst the various announcements made in Apple’s seasonal press launch on September 1st came the news that AirPlay would succeed AirTunes as the company’s flagship brand for wireless home technology. As a product, AirTunes is one of the least recognised brands within the Apple portfolio, but the company hopes that the transition to AirPlay will see a new uptake in the products and services that this could bring.
AirTunes was, in basic terms, the technology that allowed iTunes users to wirelessly stream their music to speakers set up within a home network. It required specific hardware in the shape of at least one Airport Express, along with audio or stereo cable to connect to the sound system. Given that each Airport Express unit cost you around $99, this was seen as a relatively expensive way to listen to music and didn’t particularly take off, despite the fact that AirTunes was easy to set up and effective.
AirPlay is the next iteration of Apple’s wireless media product. Like AirTunes, AirPlay allows users to stream their music wirelessly throughout the home but it takes the concept in a number of new directions.
First up, it reduces the dependency on Apple branded hardware. In a deal that includes audio specialists like Denon and JBL, Airplay will now allow you to stream directly to any supported equipment, offering consumers more choice and competition within a market that was largely a monopoly under AirTunes. AirPlay will have the capability to stream much more than just the music too, and now, the receiving equipment will also be able to present track and artist information and original artwork.
Other developments are planned in the immediate future. AirPlay will now allow users to stream video and audio files directly from other Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPod and the iPad. More crucially, you’ll be able to stream those media to your Apple TV, meaning that you’ll be able to download high definition movies and stream them directly to a large screen high definition TV. If you need a remote control, well, Apple will have that sorted too, via the Remote application that can be downloaded to your iPhone or iPod touch.
Some details remain unclear at this stage. It’s not really known, for example whether you can stream files in the other direction, namely to your iPhone rather than from it. The absence of any reference to this in the press release indicates that this won’t be the case, which might reduce the competitiveness of such a product in a cutthroat market. Furthermore, whilst the dependence on Apple-branded hardware is now removed, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to buy new hardware at all, so there will be a reasonable outlay for consumers converting from AirTunes to AirPlay. It’s also worth remembering that whilst iTunes is the market leader for music downloads, it isn’t the only music library used by consumers and it seems unlikely that AirPlay will support other streaming services.
Nonetheless, these criticisms don’t detract from the growing interest in what appears to be a fundamental enhancement to the Apple product family. AirPlay doesn’t just update the existing AirTunes service; it represents an exciting new phase in home networking technologies.