What Killed Apple’s AirPlay?

By Stephen Shenefield

The Apple team has succeeded over the years because they continue to offer a premium user experience – what many call “easy to use” – but which really extends to all aspects of working with the company and its products.  Apple products are easy to buy, and relatively easy to set up and use.

Apple’s AirPlay is a networked (usually Wi-Fi-based) streaming audio system that allows the owner to choose music from iTunes (PC or Mac) or an iOS device (iPhone/iPad/iPod touch) and play it on a compatible Apple-certified AirPlay audio product.  In the case of Apple’s own Apple TV, it is possible to play videos as well, or photos, from a modern Mac or iOS device.

Apples’ AirPlay for many people has been a disappointment because it simply doesn’t work well on many Wi-Fi systems, and Apple’s dirty secret is you need a pretty good wireless router (theirs or a good one from Cisco/Linksys or D-Link or Netgear or others) to get even passable performance.  In my own home I had to ditch my $60 Linksys router and put in a $200 model to keep the music from cutting out.

Certain companies, such as Bowers & Wilkins and iHome, have been pretty successful with AirPlay speaker products, to some extent because of each company’s strong and distinct market position.  Many of those companies’ models also have i-device docks, which raises the question of how many people actually use the AirPlay feature, or are these products just fancy chargers, in additional to playing music.  Other prominent companies like Klipsch and Boston Acoustics have not been as successful, resulting in steep discounts and closeouts.  Their models have not had docks, so AirPlay (or an awkward “AUX input” wire) is the only way to get music.

Controlling AirPlay from iOS 7 Is AirPlay feeling about half past dead? Yes, if it is on a crappy Wi-Fi network.

Controlling AirPlay from iOS 7
Is AirPlay feeling about half past dead?
Yes, if it is on a crappy Wi-Fi network.

In my mind, AirPlay’s struggle stems directly from its dependence on other companies’ products as well as customer set-up.  AirPlay operates on your wireless Local Area Network (a.k.a. Wi-Fi) and requires the same set-up, WEP and WPA keys and all, to get on the network.  Those of us that are IT-inclined know that setting up a friend’s wireless network is one of the most common requests.  Once online, AirPlay products are very sensitive to Wi-Fi throughput.  You can be playing music, and when someone else in the house starts watching Netflix on the same wireless system, your music dies or drops out.

Having been through the development of an AirPlay product, and without violating Apple’s confidentiality requirements, I can say Apple specifications and testing are the most extensive I’ve experienced, requiring numerous product samples and lab testing on three continents.  To Apple’s credit, this gives these products the greatest hope of succeeding in a typical Wi-Fi environment.

Here’s the dirty secret:  Not all Wi-Fi routers are equal, and you need a pretty good one for AirPlay to work well.  Most lower-cost routers are capable of one stream, shared between connected devices on the network.  Network protocols allow this sharing, and you don’t notice hiccups sending emails.  AirPlay, which is streaming the music, is prone to cutting out if it has to share the bandwidth with too many other devices on the network.  Fancy routers (>$100) support multiple streams – by using techniques like MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out), big antennas, and multiple simultaneous bands and formats (like 802.11N on 5 GHz and 802.11G on 2.4 GHz).  Surprise! Most people buy the cheap routers!

To make matters worse, any rich Wi-Fi environment like an apartment building can also muck up AirPlay performance.  That said, with a good router and proper set up, AirPlay can work very well.  Performance is improved if there is only one “Wi-Fi hop” such as from iPhone wireless to the router, and then a wired connection to the AirPlay speaker.  Make both hops wireless, as is typical, and performance is threatened.

The other dirty secret of AirPlay is that its usefulness as a multi-room system is very limited. Only iTunes running on PC or Mac can pull this off – playing music on multiple AirPlay speakers at the same time. Play from your i-device and you can only play music on one AirPlay speaker, making it not any more multi-room capable than Bluetooth.  Only a subtle work-around – using Apple’s iOS Remote app to control iTunes on a PC or Mac – permits multi-room control from an iOS device.

Apple’s mistake was to let their protected system depend on someone else’s hardware (the router),  a HUGE unknown.  Maybe Apple will improve the system over time, no doubt rendering existing equipment incompatible.  But probably to make it work extremely well, Apple would need to take full control of the wireless system, or clearly require a better-quality router from the outset.

Sonos solves this throughput and wireless reliability issue by having their own proprietary network – a so-called “mesh” network with wireless leaps from any Sonos device to any other Sonos product in the same system.

In my opinion, any future multi-room music stream system manufacturers must WATCH OUT if they think they will succeed on customers’ own Wi-Fi systems.  As with the Sonos solution, the wireless service needs some kind of special design that raises it above the bandwidth fray.  It is easy to say “all problems will be solved in the future when all routers are faster and have more bandwidth.”  However, history has proven that other activities on people’s various wireless devices (and simply the number of those devices) will continue to increase network load.  Perhaps the really opportunity here is for companies like D-Link and Netgear to sell everyone a fantastic new router!!

© Copyright 2013 Stephen Shenefield

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