Google wants to take on Apple with an open AirPlay alternative

Google (s GOOG) is working on an open alternative to Apple’s (s AAPL) AirPlay, and it’s hoping to bring a number of device and software vendors on board to provide the industry with an open technology to exchange data between second screens and TV-connected devices. YouTube unveiled the first implementation of this technology last week, when it launched AirPlay-like video beaming from Android phones and tablets to Google TV devices. But Google product manager Timbo Drayson made it clear during a conversation I had with him a few days ago that this is just the first step. “We really want to move the whole industry forward,” he said.

Google representatives have been talking about bringing an AirPlay-like experience to Google TV for some time, and the company has also worked for years on a closer connection between Android mobile phones and YouTube apps on a variety of smart TV platforms. YouTube first unveiled a YouTube Remote control app two years ago, and then integrated the same remote control functionality into its main YouTube app last year. Both apps allowed users to start the playback of YouTube videos from their phones. But the downside was that the devices first had to be paired by entering a nine-digit code.

It’s been a long time coming

The YouTube app on Google TV prompts users to try its new mobile phone capabilities. But Google TV is just the beginning for Google’s second screen ambitions.

Google took the next step with its ill-fated Nexus Q this summer. The Android-based media streamer, which was shelved before it even went on sale, could be auto-discovered by Android handsets within the same network. That sounds like a small feature, but it’s been key to the success of Apple’s AirPlay technology.

iPad and iPhone users have been able to beam content to their Apple TV without the need for any configuration for some time. It’s arguably one of the reasons why Apple TV sells so well: Apple sold 5.3 million units of the device in its fiscal year 2012, which makes it by far the best-selling video streaming box. One could also argue that AirPlay-like functionality is one of the key features that’s been missing from Android to successfully compete with the iPad.

Google took a page from Apple’s playbook when it rolled out its own AirPlay-like remote control feature for YouTube on Google TV last week. The company has since launched a dedicated micro-site to promote the feature, showing how serious it is taking second screen control. But it is not stopping there. Drayson told me that Google is “actively working with other companies” to turn this into an open standard, which could be used on other platforms and for other apps as well.

Second-screen apps and laptop screen sharing

And it’s not just about remote control functionality and beaming a video from your mobile phone to the TV we are talking about. The new protocol makes it possible for data to flow in both directions, Drayson explained, which would enable developers to build second-screen experiences that correspond to what’s happening on live TV as well. Also on the roadmap: beaming content from your laptop to your TV screen.

Google isn’t the first one to work on an alternative to AirPlay. In fact, the widest-supported AirPlay alternative actually predates Apple’s protocol: The Digital Living Network Alliance launched in 2003 to bring content sharing to the living room. It’s DLNA protocol has been widely adopted by numerous players, with a total of 500 devices supporting DLNA today. However, the actual level of support varies widely, and many manufacturers have opted to roll out their own branded solutions on top of DLNA – but even those see little use from consumers.

That’s why a key goal of Google’s AirPlay antidote would be consumer education. The more companies participated in these efforts, the better, said Drayson.