Wireless Display Technologies Challenge Apple AirPlay

At CES this year two separate announcements are being made that could prove 2012 to be the year of wireless display technologies. Solutions are being promoted by Intel and Marvell, with the latter in partnership with the Wi-Fi Alliance, which are looking to disrupt the current in-home and peer-to-peer wireless display market currently dominated by Apple with their AirPlay streaming technology. Will either solution be able to challenge Apple's dominance? 2012 may prove to be a defining year for the wireless display market.

Intel is announcing expanded support for their WiDi technology. Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) compatible laptops and TV adapters have been around since early 2010. It requires specific laptop system specifications, including an Intel Wireless-N adapter. Earlier this year that Intel incorporated WiDi support for DRM protected DVD and Blu-Ray content, in an attempt to expand consumer interest.

Intel WiDi streams video from laptops to your HDTV
through a compatible adapter using 802.11n Wi-Fi
Until now, use of WiDi required an separate external receiver that connected to the television display. Such single-use type devices have not attracted much attention or interest from consumers. Intel's announcement at CES focuses on embedding WiDi technology into other set-top boxes and directly into televisions through a partnership with several System-on-a-Chip manufacturers that supply the components in such devices. This should help achieve broader reach for WiDi technology by being embedded into more consumers devices and eliminating the need to buy a separate single-purpose WiDi receiver.

In another announcement, Marvell and the Wi-Fi Alliance are announcing a standards-based Wi-Fi Display technology. Marvell is a silicon manufacturer of many of the wireless chipsets found in consumer electronic devices. By partnering with the Wi-Fi Alliance, Marvell hopes to drive greater adoption of their components into OEM devices through the use of a standards-based wireless display technology that will be interoperable with the large install base of Wi-Fi compatible devices.

To accomplish this, the two organizations have developed a complete Wi-Fi display software stack that is platform independent, allowing other manufacturers to eventually implement the solution. The stack includes link provisioning, management, video transcoding, HD video transport over Wi-Fi, and content security support with DRM. Link provisioning is likely built on-top of the Wi-Fi Direct peer-to-peer protocol developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance and announced this time last year at CES, but that has not been confirmed. The Wi-Fi Alliance will launch a certification program that will be available mid-2012.

This software stack is extensible to a variety of System-on-a-Chip (SoC) platforms and can take advantage of any hardware acceleration for video transcoding and security. By incorporating this technology into its wireless products, Marvell is enabling an entire ecosystem of Android and Windows based mobile devices, Wi-Fi Display HDMI dongles, DTVs, Blue-ray players and set-top boxes, such as Google TV.

However, both technologies face an uphill battle to garner enough consumer interest and market adoption to compete with Apple, whose AirPlay audio and video streaming technology currently reigns king in the wireless multimedia streaming market.

Apple's dominance in both the mobile device and digital content distribution markets have positioned AirPlay as the dominant solution. Leveraging multiple solutions in a coherent and integrated fashion has been Apple's strength and creates an ecosystem that is compelling to consumers. Apple is able to leverage existing devices that people have with their iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV, Airport Express, and Mac (iTunes) solutions and build an integrated service at virtually no cost to consumers. Furthermore, leveraging their content management and distribution through iTunes, consumers have even more reason to buy set-top boxes like the Apple TV which can also stream cloud-based content in addition to in-home streaming from personal libraries.

Apple AirPlay enables audio and video streaming across Wi-Fi networks

Intel will face problems competing due to their use of proprietary technology, which is similar to Apple's approach but lacks the device install base and content management ecosystem that is core to Apple's strategy. Reliance on Intel wireless chipsets available only in laptops and not mobile devices further hinders adoption as consumers clearly prefer mobile devices these days. And without a content management or distribution solution, Intel will have trouble convincing users to buy WiDi compatible receivers or set-top boxes.

Marvell and the Wi-Fi Alliance are taking a better long-term approach with a standards-based solution that will be able to leverage compatibility with any Wi-Fi capable device on the market. However, it will take time for the WFA to develop interoperability certification and manufacturers to integrate Wi-Fi Display capability into equipment. Ultimately, this may eventually prove to be an integrated feature of most mobile and home theater consumer electronics, but only time will tell. This solution also faces a similar content management and distribution problem as Intel, leaving consumers with a potentially dis-jointed solution.

Revolution or Evolution? - Andrew's Take
Apple clearly has an advantage in the wireless display and multimedia streaming market with AirPlay due to their end-to-end ecosystem with mobile devices and content management that has proven to be their core strength. Intel is taking a proprietary, closed system approach, which will limit device support and availability to Intel equipped laptops and a small contingent of set-top boxes. Marvell and the Wi-Fi Alliance is taking a more open, standards-based approach, but it will take time for manufacturers to adopt and deploy the technology. And both solutions still lack the cohesive ecosystem that differentiates Apple from the rest of the market.

Ultimately, Apple is able to leverage that ecosystem of devices, software, and streaming in a integrated, seamless fashion that creates greater value for consumers. Unless these new solutions can offer broad availability and compatibility across the consumer electronics industry, I don't see how they can effectively compete with Apple. Marvell and the Wi-Fi Alliance are in the best position to execute on that vision, but it will take time. 2012 may prove to be a year where these vendors test market strategy and look to gain manufacturer support, but don't expect to see a large amount of devices available on the market. AirPlay will still reign king for some time to come.