Apple’s portable wireless base station, the AirPort Express, has previously only been able to steam music from iTunes, largely leaving third-party applications out. There may be a shift now, however, as a developer has cracked the private key that locks in this restriction.
MacRumors reports that developer James Laird has now remedied this issue by reverse-engineering the AirPort Express private key to create a piece of software called Shairport – an open-source emulator for the AirPort Express containing a RAOP server to stream music from iTunes and iPods to any third-party software or hardware. Mr. Laird explains:
My girlfriend moved house, and her Airport Express no longer made it with her wireless access point. I figured it’d be easy to find an ApEx emulator – there are several open source apps out there to play to them. However, I was disappointed to find that Apple used a public-key crypto scheme, and there’s a private key hiding inside the ApEx. So I took it apart (I still have scars from opening the glued case!), dumped the ROM, and reverse engineered the keys out of it.
This will be exciting news for some – it might enable your Roku or Boxee Box to run content from your iTunes library – but (and this is the “bad news” section) official hardware manufacturers are unlikely to adopt the solution, as it would risk their relationship with Apple. While it seems obvious that developers will be writing all sorts of plugins and add-ons to support the myriad devices out there, the solution will likely never be officially sanctioned by any device manufacturers.
Why It Matters, And Why Apple Should Look The Other Way
The fact that Apple didn’t bother provide such a feature with the AirPort Express suggests that the company is 100 percent dedicated to AirPlay, its media streaming technology that bridges the gap between iOS gadgets and television.
Unfortunately, a half-baked AirPlay implementation requires an Apple TV for this, but this will change as Apple updates the technology and more consumer electronics makers release AirPlay-compatible gear. For example, Apple is rumored to be licensing AirPlay video to television makers, which would allow iPhones, iPods and iPads to stream media to the big screen without an Apple TV or a computer involved.
Shairport is good news for consumers, as it open up many options for them, and essentially means that software solutions that can stream music from iTunes or iOS devices will be simple to make and widely available. It’ll also open up the possibility for AirPlay-like compatibility with Android, Blackberry, and other devices (even tablets).
This is GigaOM’s take on the situation:
Apple doesn’t want AirPlay to be open because in limiting its availability, it encourages sales of its own devices (many people I know have their homes set up for wireless sound throughout using multiple Apple TVs and AirPort Expresses), and because if it loses control over licensing, it also loses the ability to properly vet hardware partners and their products. Sub-standard experiences with AirPlay will affect Apple’s reputation, even if third-party hardware or software is actually to blame. Apple may also encounter resistance from record labels regarding the acceptable licensed use of music sold through the iTunes store when it comes to AirPlay music streaming.
But Apple would be better off leaving this gate alone, now that it’s been opened. In fact, it should go one further and make AirPlay itself freely available to all…
And I believe that GigaOM’s Darrell Etherington is right – Apple is intentionally excluding a large portion of the market with the way they are practicing (or not practicing, as the case seems to be) their AirPlay technologies to other manufacturers or developer, and while it is their prerogative to do so, it seems to end up in the territory of being anti-consumer. While there is some applause to be drawn for Apple’s closed nature as a company, this is one of the cases where it seems quite undesirable, and doesn’t achieve a good end.
Allowing AirPlay to remain open and allowing it to become a widespread standard could even be a good business decision for Apple – If a user knew going into it that AirPlay would probably be able to work with their television, stereo, and Mac or Windows computer, or Android, BlackBerry or Windows phone or tablet (as well as, of course, the Apple TV and IOS devices), it might become extremely important to them, they would go out of their way to look for it in hardware, and Apple could rake in a cool profit from the licensing fees.
If, however, a user knew that AirPlay would probably work with their TV, stereo, and any and all home computers, it might become much more important to them. Quality control will of course be an issue, but if AirPlay becomes omnipresent on third-party consumer devices, the quality of the experience using it on specific hardware will gradually become attributable to the device maker, and not to Apple. iOS and iTunes users want AirPlay to be more useful in more places, and Shairport makes that a reality, at least for the meantime.
It’s unclear whether or not Apple is planning to take any action against this hack, or what that action would consist of (hopefully hiring James Laird to bring this to the masses, or at least giving him some solid props – hey, one can wish, right?), but it is my hope that Apple will either allow his solution to play out as planned, or that it will encourage them to develop a more open and licensing-friendly means to bring AirPlay to the masses.