It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but HDMI radically simplified our home entertainment. Once, connecting devices to a television required any number of different video and audio cables — including composite, component, VGA, DVI, and more.
Now, HDMI has supplanted nearly all of them. It's ubiquitous, and it's simple to use. One cable transmits video and audio at the same time. People understand how it works.
Miracast could cut the HDMI cord
But an HDMI cable is still a bulky, cumbersome thing to carry around if you're simply trying to connect a smartphone or tablet to a television. That's why the wireless industry is working on a wireless alternative. It's called Miracast. It might have already failed. But if the industry can turn things around, it could have the potential to cut that pesky cable.
The story so far
In 2010, Apple introduced AirPlay, a technology to stream content from any iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch to an Apple TV. At first, it could only send music, pictures, and videos; in 2011, Apple added the ability to mirror anything you see on a smartphone or tablet's display. That's precisely what Miracast does, only you don't need multiple Apple products to make it work. Theoretically, any device with a recent Wi-Fi chip can support the standard, letting you pair any smartphone with any smart TV or connected set-top box.
Unfortunately, "theoretically" is the operative word, because even though Miracast has support from many major players, you'd be hard-pressed to actually find it at your local electronics store.
Fewer than 30 Miracast transmitters readily available
While the Wi-Fi Alliance has certified over 1,000 Miracast devices since the program launched in May 2012, that number includes every version of every single product sold in every country around the world, so a single phone or television can easily be counted a dozen times before you add up to that number. The mobile industry has also been slow to support the standard. While practically all of Sony, Samsung, and LG's 2013 "smart" televisions can act as a Miracast display, there are still precious few phones and tablets you can use as the transmitter. In the United States, we found fewer than 30 distinct gadgets that support Miracast, primarily very recent handsets like the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, and LG G2, but also devices as exotic as the Samsung Galaxy Camera and Nvidia Shield.
Some point to Android as a powerful force for Miracast adoption, but Android fragmentation makes that difficult on multiple levels. Even though Miracast is a native component of Android 4.2, there's no guarantee any given device will support the standard or surface Miracast where users can find it easily. Google only recently updated its own Nexus 10 to support the protocol, even though that tablet shipped with Android 4.2, and some manufacturers bury Miracast deep in a settings menu.
A fragmented mess
What's more frustrating is that even among devices that support Miracast, the service isn't uniformly labeled. Sony calls it "screen mirroring," Panasonic calls it "display mirroring," and Google simply refers to it as "Wireless Display." Samsung has rebranded it "AllShare Cast," and LG generally calls it "SmartShare." I went to my local electronics store to check out the boxes of some Miracast-enabled devices, and I couldn't find a Miracast logo anywhere. Rather than showcasing an interoperable standard, these companies seem to prefer fooling their customers into believing they've invented new technologies.
Kevin Robinson, senior marketing manager for the Wi-Fi Alliance, which oversees the Miracast program and certifies devices, tells me there's no way to enforce the Miracast brand. "Individual vendors are free to do whatever they want," he says. "Anyone can go download the specification and implement something." Though he says much of the idea behind the Miracast brand was to drive the industry to use a standard user-friendly name (the actual technology is simply known as "Wi-Fi Display"), the only thing the Alliance can actually do is certify that devices work together.
Companies seem to prefer fooling customers into believing they've invented new technologies
We've seen what happens to standards whose brands are fragmented this way. HDMI-CEC is a spec that lets components control each other over HDMI cables, but it's shipped under a dozen different, often incompatible brand names like Anynet+ and Viera Link. Another is DLNA, which was long trumpeted as the solution for sharing content between devices. What we got was a mishmash of products that don't work all work together, don't all work the same way, and have radically different and often terrible user interfaces.
Seeds of discontent
Brand fragmentation isn't the only challenge facing Miracast adoption. Support for the standard also seems to be splintering, as some of Miracast's major backers are already pursuing app-based alternatives to the technology.
An elegant alternative
Though Google added native support for Miracast in Android 4.2, that didn't stop the company from building the Chromecast, a $35 HDMI dongle that plays video directly from the internet. Queue up a YouTube or Netflix video, and you can watch it on the big screen — just so long as your device and a Google Cast receiver are on the same network, they can automatically sync, and from the user's perspective it feels like pushing content to the TV. Users can also mirror the contents of a tab in Google's Chrome browser, though not their entire screen.
While the Chromecast's primary functionality is currently limited to a small number of apps as Google fleshes out an SDK, Chromecast product manager Rishi Chandra tells me the company's aiming to have the Google Cast protocol integrated in a whole array of devices, including TV sets. "The long-term answer is we want to enable any device to talk to any other device," he says. "When we took a look at what's out there today, we didn't think that there was anything as elegant," explaining that none of the other standards on the market accomplish as much or support as many devices for the time being.
Meanwhile, Sony, Vizio, LG, Panasonic, TiVo, and Roku are all planning to support DIAL (Discovery and Launch), which happens to be the very same protocol that allows the Chromecast to magically sync content. While Google's version adds remote-control functionality, the basic mechanism should still be compatible. Still, it's yet another name destined to confuse consumers.
DIAL and AllJoyn put apps in front
Though Qualcomm was one of the very first partners to push the Miracast standard, the company recently announced AllPlay, yet another way to allow apps to control other devices in your home. Instead of using DIAL, Qualcomm's solution can use any available network (not just standard Wi-Fi) to discover and connect to local devices, and can stream locally stored media in addition to content stored in the cloud. Though the company's shooting for a "turnkey home audio solution" to compete with Apple's AirPlay in the wireless speaker market as the first step, Qualcomm executives tell me that video is also on the roadmap. That's one more potential competitor for Miracast.
And yet, Miracast's future might not be that dim. You might not be able to easily find, purchase, and set up a Miracast system, but one day you might discover that it already exists. When every new Android device ships with Android 4.3 and compatible hardware, say, a year from now, there could be quite a few Miracast transmitters on the market.
Windows laptops and tablets might also spread the standard. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is natively supporting Miracast, and activating it should be as easy as swiping in from the right side of your touchscreen and tapping a few times to select your display. Many of those devices will have Intel processors inside, and many of those will also automatically support the Miracast standard.
Every new Wintel laptop and tablet could potentially be a Miracast transmitter
For years, Intel had pushed a proprietary technology called WiDi (Wireless Display) but the latest version of WiDi is literally Miracast by another name. Unfortunately, however, Intel isn't quite ready to tout compatibility. "The only thing we'd feel confident communicating to the consumer is something we've tested end-to-end," says Kerry Forell, Intel's WiDi product manager, when we ask how he feels about fragmenting the Miracast brand by tacking on yet another name.
Roku, Vizio, and HP are on board
Other players in the industry are also slowly ramping up support. When we met with HP to see its latest tablets, both Windows and Android, the company said it was completely committed to the standard. "We support Miracast in 100 percent of our tablet products," said a representative. And though Roku and Vizio are planning to support DIAL, we confirmed with both companies that they're working on Miracast support as well. Perhaps one of these two technologies doesn't necessarily have to win out.
Three years after Apple introduced AirPlay, the competition is scattered. Rival manufacturers are fighting amongst themselves for the glory of a victory they haven't yet won. They seem to believe that they can get traction with many different brands and implementations for what needs to be a single, simple interface that — like Apple's AirPlay — just works. History shows us that previous attempts to create such a standard were thwarted by this very sort of fragmentation. By definition, if there are multiple standards, there can't be one.
If the industry doesn't step up and stand together, that Apple TV is going to look like a mighty fine deal.