March 22, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Will Apple Extend Its Dominance to the Connected Living Room?

skiftaApple Airplay lets the Apple faithful send music from any connected Apple product that stores music or runs music apps (Mac/iTunes, iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone) to a $99 Apple TV, solving a problem that has confounded humankind for years: how to play music on the nice speakers without relying on cables or worrying about whether the thing is really going to work.

And AirPlay does work — well — but only if you’re willing to commit, hook line and sinker to Apple’s ecosystem, as many are. Now that some manufacturers are integrating AirPlay directly into their speakers, you don’t even need an Apple TV to play your music apps and other content over great-sounding speakers, sans wires.

Skifta, from Qualcomm’s wholly-owned subsidiary and incubator Qualcomm Services Labs [updated], which we’ve profiled before, was on hand in Austin, TX at SXSW 2011 to demonstrate its alternative to Apple’s Airplay system. Skifta is the first app to rely on the DLNA wireless media sharing standard already embedded in many consumer electronics devices and computers, meaning that you don’t need Apple TV or any of its other proprietary software to send music from, say, an Android phone to a Sony sound system.

“It’s like AirPlay, but you are actually able to speak to a number of devices irrespective of model or manufacturer,” said Skifta spokesman Gary Brotman, demonstrating playback of music stored on a computer over a DLNA stereo system, all controlled by a Samsung Galaxy Tab. “You’re not dependent on an ecosystem and all the hardware that goes with it. Here, I’ve got a listing of all the channels that are on this network, on this phone, but also remote channels that I’ve brought in to create a virtual local source and third-party plug-ins [for other services and apps], like… Napster [the music subscription] or SomaFM.”

That said, DLNA is still mired in alphabet soup, compared to Apple’s elegant, in-house solution, reminiscent of other relatively closed Apple technologies that demolished the competition (such as Microsoft PlaysForSure).

“DLNA is basically the certification of universal plug-and-play (UPnP),” explained Brotman. “They’re interoperable. The biggest challenge to DLNA to date is that the manufacturers that support it haven’t promoted it as much… they’ve been working on this thing and trying to make it tight, and the marketing piece hasn’t been as strong.” He added that marketing dollars are now being spent (see the video below, for instance), and that in December, the DLNA consortium released a software spec allowing — crucially — mobile and tablet apps to transmit music and other content.

Skifta is the first of these, but there could be more. Music app developers looking for a way to output wirelessly to home stereos could add DLNA compatibility alongside Apple AirPlay (and Google Fling, for that matter), to cover their bases within the home.

“There’s still a learning curve, to some degree. DLNA might not roll off the tongue,” said Brotman, “but the fact that this television, if you plug it into the network, raises its hand and says ‘I’m here.’ It doesn’t matter that it’s DLNA, what matters is that I can see it on this phone… and control it playing back, and I can do the same thing with media on that computer or media from my house in Los Angeles.”

This is all well and good, but Apple is known for taking advantage of the ease of use and centralized marketing messages enabled by its growing ecosystem of devices, software, services, and stores. Will time-starved developers bother with DLNA certification for their music apps, or with creating plug-ins for Skifta and delivering music that way? And regardless, will consumers have the patience to understand how to connect the dots, even if it means more freedom when it comes to choosing their electronics?

It’s too early to say, but what is obvious is that consumers (and, possibly, the music business) lose when fans lack options.

Update: This article originally described Skifta as a subsidiary of Qualcomm, but it’s actually a product of Qualcomm’s wholly-owned subsidiary Qualcomm Services Labs.

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