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AirPlay's Sadly Missing Piece

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 30, 2010 5:00 AM PT

I firmly believe that one of the reasons Apple has enjoyed such generally excellent customer satisfaction ratings over the years is that the company usually delivers an excellent device or solution, then builds on it, giving customers new features and functionality. When it works right, it can create a snowball effect of functionality that continues to build.

AirPlay's Sadly Missing Piece

On the downside, what happens when that snowball crashes into an immovable object?

In the case of Apple, the snowball doesn't really explode, but it can come to a shuddering stop. As I was playing around with AirPlay and iOS 4.2.1 on my iPhone 4 and second-generation Apple TV, my big hopes and dreams were shattered when I realized that AirPlay's truly killer app was left behind in the halls of Apple's Cuptertino campus: My home videos shot on my iPhone 4 won't stream to my Apple TV via AirPlay.

So much for showing off all the cool videos that I made.

And when friends and family come over for dinner, they can't share the video they shot on their iPhones either.

What the Heck Happened?

It seems to me that I remember Apple CEO Steve Jobs talking about delivering AirPlay in November, which would let you stream audio and video from your iPhone 4, iPad, and new iPod touches. Got a movie on your iPhone? Wirelessly stream it your Apple TV by way of your WiFi network. Music? Same thing. Photos? You betcha. But home video? I'm pretty sure he didn't specifically exclude home video from his description.

And yet, as near as I can figure out, the only way you can get a home video taken via your iPhone 4 to display on your Apple TV-connected HDTV is to sync the phone with your computer, get the videos off the iPhone, then import those videos into iTunes and sync them back into the iPod app on your iPhone 4.

Are you scratching your head yet? Yeah, me too. That's not a particularly consumer-friendly solution. And besides, once you put the videos in iTunes, you can stream them to your Apple TV from your computer -- why would you need the mobile device at all? If you're traveling to a friend's house who also has an Apple TV, this might be worth the trouble. But ... sheesh, it's probably easier and faster just to publish a video to YouTube.

Still, AirPlay Rocks

Once you get past the disappointment of what I think is the most obvious benefit of AirPlay, the potential for existing and future uses starts to be revealed.

First, let's talk movies. It is handy to be able to put a TV show or movie onto your iPhone and watch it from wherever you happen to be, without worrying about whether or not your iTunes-running computer is awake ... or even in the house at all. You can quickly share a movie with friends or family, plus, if you don't finish it, you can take your iPhone to bed and avoid the sleep you probably need more than the entertainment.

The Photo app, it turns out, has AirPlay enabled, so you can share an off-the-cuff photo or even slideshows from your AirPlay-compatible iOS device. (by the way, the Camera app, which gives you access to your Camera Roll, does not have the little AirPlay button, which I found puzzling until I found it in the Photo app, which I haven't actually used directly in months).

While you can use AirPlay to share a YouTube video from your iPhone, this is only handy if you don't think you can easily find the YouTube video directly from the Apple TV's built-in YouTube app.

As for iPod music, you can share that via AirPlay and your Apple TV, which is cool in that it'll let you stream new music to your home theater system. Again, this seems to be mostly handy in transient ways -- for example, you've got a playlist you want to share at a friend's house who happens to have an Apple TV ... or, more likely, your iPhone-toting friend has a playlist that you encourage him or her to share at your house, which has the Apple TV.

The Promise of Apps

Today, you can use Pandora to stream audio to your Apple TV and home theater setup, which is cool. Plus, it speaks to a future in which other video and audio apps might include AirPlay functionality too, giving you a big-screen TV for instant sharing -- or just prime access to the most comfortable position on the couch.

One day, I hope to see specialized apps stream content too.

So Is AirPlay Really Magic?

Almost. Setting it up is pretty easy -- you have to set up Home Sharing in iTunes and make sure it's turned on in the settings for your Apple TV. After that, there's a little AirPlay button that appears to the upper right of the play buttons in applicable media apps. Push it, and you can choose to stream to your Apple TV. It's pretty easy.

Still, Apple's AirPlay is like a magic trick in which the magician promises to saw through the pretty girl in the box, but instead of sawing all the way through, he stops three-quarters into it, then looks up for applause.

Soon, though, I'm sure Apple will finish the trick -- hopefully by Christmas so my own little living room magic trick actually lets me share my iPhone 4 home videos.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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