The Apple Airplay trick that was rolled out in iOS 4.2 for iPhone and iPad turned out to be a bit of a tease. Being able to throw a video on your iOS device to the Apple TV has the magic to it Apple loves to show off. But as I discovered quickly in my tests, the trick is shallow and limited. Not only does the user need both an iOS remote device, but he needs an Apple TV to boot. Worse, the feature only works with certain native Apple apps, so third parties are cut out for the time being. Steve Jobs wrote an email recently to a customer promising third-party support in 2011. Can't wait. Also the AirPlay function is a bit dodgy in my use of it. It pretty much broke a rental of "Elf" I made the other day. After starting the playback on the iPad and resuming it on my TV, the playback crapped out and the film became inaccessible on both devices.
The connection between TV and mobile is so compelling because the smartphone has become the second screen in the living room that the Web always aspired to be. As my colleague Laurie Sullivan outlines today, Yahoo claims some strong evidence that the TV-to-mobile link has enormous potential. The portal is making a hard grab for TV budgets by showing evidence of noticeable spikes in mobile use during commercial breaks.
As politically incorrect as it may be to compliment Comcast, their Xfinity apps for iOS and Android give us a glimmer of what is to come from TV Everywhere -- and also the leverage that incumbent MSOs will have in this fight. The app works as a remote for navigating my digital box, but it is most effective as a second screen for finding video on demand, scouting the channel grid and scheduling recording on the DVR. In effect it relieves me of the intrusive task of stopping what I am doing on the big screen to run these bookkeeping and research functions on the set-top box itself. Better, it lets me avoid the incredibly ugly and toy-like Comcast Digital remote control.
The possibilities here are enormous, not only for merchandising Comcast content but for cool two-screen marketing programs. When the set-top box becomes aware of a second screen, how easy will it be to send links, offers, etc. straight to your phone from the big screen?
Moving media across the screens seamlessly, however, is the real magic for consumers. That is why Netflix continues to be for me the indispensible app. I have literally started watching films in my queue on the iPad on the exercise machine in the morning, picked them up on the laptop, grabbed a little more on the TV via Roku or Apple TV, and finished watching on my iPhone in bed. Netflix has made my film library (whatever its limitation in term of depth) into a utility like water. I carry the tap with me and turn it on at will.
But finding the most effective way to get virtually any Web content onto the TV remains a challenge, both of technology and licensing. Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, Google TV all have their limitations. I know that for some just connecting a PC to the TV is the most obvious answer, but some of the very software out there that makes the interface palatable on the TV means that folks find their content blocked.
I am sure we will see numerous attempts to take the AirPlay concept out of Apple's proprietary handcuffs and across other content types. Snapstick is shopping around a proof of concept design that purports to being the full Web to the TV via the smartphone. In the demo video, the user finds a video she likes from any source on the mobile Web browser, flicks the phone towards her TV screen, and the video plays back on the TV. This is the next step beyond Xfinity's remote and AirPlay. It uses the phone pretty much as the video content search device and lets the TV work as the viewing screen. Snapstick is promising that unlike the streaming media boxes, it will simply transfer all of the available Web.
The demo video is on YouTube.
Well, good luck with that last part. Of course, the trick does rely on a hardware connection to the TV. Rather than try to sell another set-top box directly to consumers, Snapstick's private beta rollout today is more of a pitch to hardware OEMs to integrate the technology in their set-top boxes and disc players. Snapstick provides the software to make it work and monetizes it through the relationship with the hardware vendor. The company tells me it's talking with hardware companies and working on deals that would bring the system to market in the second quarter of 2011.
I don't know. It seems to me any hardware maker would encounter a boatload of conflicts and rights issues if they were already working with major studios and broadcasters to bring other media through the same box. Snapstick says that unlike competitive streaming media boxes, its technology looks to other servers like just another PC and so can't be blocked easily from any Web content by a publisher. Again, I have trouble seeing an Xbox or Samsung box folding that kind of technology into their mix without some concern about the network TV partners they also want to keep happy.
Still, all of these first stabs at linking mobile to the TV screen point in the right direction. The current mobile use cases all suggest the mobile phone is calling out to the TV screen for a more synchronized relationship. Once that is established, then Yahoo's calls to move TV budgets to mobile might be moot. The two platforms could create an amazingly powerful bonded platform that will give us a usable version of the interactive TV we have been waiting thirty years to watch. Imagine leaning in and leaning back all at the same time without wrenching your back.