iOS 4.3: Turning On the Media Tap
For someone who is not an Apple fan boy, I sure do look like one. Over the past year, the home living room "lab" has become fully rigged with Apple's products. From the iPhone 4 to iPad, MacAir to Apple TV (and even a couple of iPods thrown in), this place is starting to look like an Apple demo house. Granted some of this stuff is here so I can write about it all, and it all competes with a Droid, Roku, three game consoles and now Google TV for attention. My living room has become a pile of HDMI cables, surge protectors and a collection of remotes that now require their own large wicker basket to hold.
My fiancee's plaintive wails can be heard throughout the house when she can't work her way back from the last input I was using. "We are going to have to have separate TV rooms when we are married," she insists. "This is nuts."
Well, yeah, but it is becoming clearer from the new iOS 4.3 and Apple TV OS updates that flew yesterday how Apple is starting to settle into the home environment and knit together mobile and home entertainment experiences. Let the tech dweeb do timed test runs of the new Safari engine or gush over iPad 2 specs. The upgrades to Apple's OS that are of the greatest long-term consequence involve integration across devices.
One of the standout additions to the Apple environment, for instance, is enhanced AirPlay capability. AirPlay had been a nice curio allowing device owners to send their downloaded videos to Apple TV. Now users will be able to shoot the video they recorded and edited on their iPad 2 to the TV. Better, AirPlay is now enabled for apps that support the feature. In other words, streaming media from third party vendors can now get from handset to TV.
This has some very cool uses and adds a few wrinkles to business models. For instance, last night I was able to push my streams from the iPhone's VEVO music video app straight to the TV. The resolution and audio via the home theater were excellent. Essentially what this lets me do is use the phone to find and create a video playlist that shoots to the TV. Likewise, the updated version of the Flixster movie finder app can send trailers to the Apple TV as well. In these cases, the phone or tablet is really arich remote where the user can preview and queue content for large-screen viewing. Take a breath and think about the promotional possibilities here. You have a second screen that is not only tied to the first screen directly but is being used to make media choices on the fly for TV viewing. Technically, the mobile extensions of Xfinity, Dish and some DVRs are already headed in this direction, but VEVO and Flixster demonstrate how the media themselves could be in control as well.
Expanding AirPlay support to apps creates a business model conundrum for Apple. VEVO is streaming free ad supported versions of music videos that Apple sells in iTunes. In fact, at one point the stream from VEVO started playing a video pre-roll ad. What happens if other ad-supported content starts making an end run around Apple TV and iTune's paid/rental content model? I thought that video played back via Safari on the iOS devices was also supposed to support AirPlay, but whenever I tried to toss these videos to Apple TV all I got was the audio track. But however AirPlay gets supported, it opens up new back doors for content and advertising.
The other key way iOS 4.3 integrates mobile devices with the home entertainment ecosystem is the addition of iTunes home sharing. For a while I have been able to link my iTunes accounts across PC, Mac and even Apple TV. But now, on the remote devices, I can tap into the trove of content I keep on my main PC's iTunes library. This makes a big difference in the way I view the devices. Now, this longstanding notion of having a single media server feed content anywhere truly gets unwired. Did I really buy that many "Mad Men" episodes? How many tracks from The Band are there, anyway? But I can tap them now from anywhere.
If, as so much research is showing, both an enormous amount of tablet and even smartphone data use is happening in the home, then this changes the way we relate to the content. Now, media really does get untethered from any one platform and feels more like a basic resource -- like water or electricity -- that you can turn on anywhere.