Apple's (AAPL 0.20%) corporate personality has long been that of a control freak. In contrast to rival Microsoft, Apple is relatively strict about keeping its own software on its own hardware rather than licensing it out. But that hasn't been the best strategy for Apple's proprietary wireless transfer protocol, AirPlay.
AirPlay itself is not the problem: The protocol is excellent, and casting audio and video using it is a breeze. But there are few compatible devices to cast those things to. While Alphabet's (GOOGL -0.21%) (GOOG -0.19%) Google Cast protocol is available on a wide range of hardware devices, including the affordable Chromecast family of streaming media players, Apple's AirPlay is comparatively rare in hardware. But at CES 2019, there were signs that Apple is changing that for the better.
AirPlay's rarity and Google Cast's advantages
The AirPlay wireless transfer protocol can do pretty much everything that Google Cast can do. But it is effectively far less available to users.
Google Cast is the protocol that the Chromecast family of devices uses to cast streaming video from streaming devices to TV screens. The cheapest Chromecast device costs just $35, and the 4K version costs just $69.
Google Cast also works with Android TV, which Alphabet has licensed out to manufacturers of smart TVs and streaming devices for years. The affordable Xiaomi Mi Box, the pricey NVIDIA Shield TV, and many smart TVs are Google Cast-ready. Android TV might not be as recognizable a brand as Roku, but it is very much a player in the streaming platform market.
Apple's AirPlay can stream video to its pricey Apple TV devices (the current-gen model, the Apple TV 4K, starts at $179 for the most basic version). Apple TV owners can AirPlay videos and cast their entire iOS device's screen onto their TV. Until recently, they were virtually the only ones who could do so. Apple reportedly considered a low-priced AirPlay-powered dongle much like the Chromecast but never moved forward with the project.
Google Cast's advantage in audio, at least, is a bit less severe. The Chromecast Audio and select third-party devices are options for those looking to Google Cast their music or podcasts instead of using Bluetooth. As for AirPlay, there are third-party smart speakers and headphones from manufacturers like Bose and Beats that support the protocol.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that AirPlay has severely lagged behind Google Cast in compatible video devices -- or, at least, it used to.
AirPlay plays well with others
AirPlay is not particularly useful to users of Apple video streaming devices until they have other hardware devices that can actually receive the video cast using the protocol. At CES 2019, Apple finally showed that it was willing to share its protocol.
At the biggest electronics show of the year, TV maker after TV maker announced partnerships with Apple that will bring AirPlay capabilities to new smart TVs. Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony (SONY -0.92%) each announced AirPlay-capable TVs. That list includes manufacturers that already offer Google Cast (in fact, Sony uses the Android TV platform on its smart TVs).
Apple's increasing willingness to play nice with other manufacturers may be a necessity as the company's iPhone sales fail to support it as they once did, but it's also a good idea for AirPlay. A wireless protocol that no other devices use is about as useful as a language nobody speaks. In this case, the destruction of Apple's "walled garden" may help what it is growing to flourish.
Check out the latest Apple earnings call transcript.
A brighter future for AirPlay
This is a big moment for Apple. A wireless transfer protocol is not the sort of thing that is useful when it is kept entirely on one family of devices; by loosening its grip, Apple is allowing AirPlay to finally gain back some of the ground that Google Cast has on it.