Tablets and TVs: The Battle for the Bridge

by Ross Rubin   |   October 3rd, 2013

Long before the rise of PCs in the home, TV hosted what were the first mainstream consumer app platform. The “apps” came on plastic cartridges inserted into the Atari 2600, Intellivision and other early consoles. Indeed, we’re now seeing a renaissance in living room TV gaming coming via OUYA, GameStick, NVIDIA’s Shield, Valve’s Steam OS, Sony’s PlayStation Vita TV and of course, the latest generation of incumbents from Sony and Microsoft.

But the demand for a full-blown OS on a television has yet to be proven and walled gardens invariably leave out some new or niche video service. Major TV vendors are highly incentivized to continue trying to turn their wares into platforms. However, while they may not always be as convenient as a remote, the modern living room brims with other intelligent, connected devices, particularly tablets and smartphones. These feature not only access to a vast array of video content but engaging user interfaces that take advantage of the devices’ intimate usage model.

Such functionality isn’t just plausible; it’s in demand. According to research conducted by APPNATION and Reticle Research earlier this year, the ability to send content from a mobile device to a television was the #1 feature consumers wanted in a smart TV, more popular than even the ability to play apps.

But while the wireless pipe from these devices to the television should be a utility, it has oddly become a standards battleground in and of itself. A decade ago, the Digital Living Network Alliance began working on standards for streaming audio and video from one device to another. DLNA has appeared on an estimated 18,000 products and hundreds of millions of devices according to some estimates. It remains common on PCs and televisions and has become popular on mobile phones; Samsung, through its AllShare feature branding, remains a strong supporter. But despite it being “free,” DLNA has suffered from generally confusing user interface implementations.

Enter AirPlay, Apple’s answer to DLNA. In typical Apple style, the iPhone maker has confined the standard to only its software and devices (and a few licensed ones, but only for audio). What it loses in compatibility, though, it gains in an easy, integrated experience. AirPlay has been a major factor in the success of Apple TV, helping to differentiate the TV add-on from products from Roku and others. Apple TV’s volumes have grown as the installed base of iPhone and iPad users have sought a quick and convenient way to get photos and videos up to the big screen. But it hasn’t been enough to be just an HDMI cable replacement, and Appe has recently beefed up the device’s video selections with many (although not as many) Roku-like channels.

Having stewarded the core Wi-Fi technology underneath AirPlay and DLNA, the Wi-Fi Alliance has taken measures into its own hands with a focused extension to its generic connectivity called Miracast. Miracast-enabled products can send video to each other even if they are not on the same Wi-Fi network. Products supporting the standard have begun to roll out; Intel, for one, has endorsed Miracast as the successor to its own WiDi protocol and Microsoft is supporting it in Windows 8.1 It’s also coming to Android. But it would be highly unlikely for Apple to abandon AirPlay or merge it into the standard despite its early and ardent support of Wi-Fi through the years.

The market was looking like a two-horse race between AirPlay and Miracast until a little HDMI dongle from Google stole the show at the introduction of the new Nexus 7. The Chromecast can work similarly to other local streaming protocols. However, it really shines when an app supports Google Cast, enabling a mobile device to initiate and control a video stream that comes directly from the cloud. Support must be built on an app by app basis. Google started with support from popular service Netflix and (of course) YouTube, but it may take some time for other services to hop on despite the popularity of the $35 device that can also display a tab from the Chrome browser in a pinch.

The paradox of living room tablet-to-TV connectivity is that some of the least complete options (AirPlay and Chromecast) seem to be gaining the most support. As Google, perhaps frustrated by slow sales of its Google TV offering, pointed out at the introduction of the Chromecast, this kind of “throwing” functionality has to be as simple as possible for consumers to adopt it. Easy — in the form of those offerings — even trumps free as embodied by many products with DLNA support.

And the battle is not yet over. The Wi-Fi Alliance’s merger with the WiGig Alliance, which brings the potential for 7 Gbps streaming at 60 GHz, may result in changes or extensions to Miracast that won’t be easy to add via firmware. And even further along, another emerging standard may throw its hat into the ring. We’ll talk more about that technology in my next Tech.pinions column.

Ross Rubin

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, where he analyzes the adoption of consumer technology, and also publishes commentary at his blog Techspressive. You can follow him on Twitter at @rossrubin.