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November 02, 2007

A2DP Support Now In Leopard, Could an Apple Bluetooth Audio Gateway Be Far Behind?

The newest version of Apple's OS X, Leopard, finally brings A2DP support to the Mac.  A2DP is a technology that allows audio to be wirelessly streamed from a device, like a computer or cell phone, to a set of speakers or your home stereo.  One can only expect that A2DP support will soon be coming to the iPhone too.  Apple was a pioneer of wireless music when it created AirTunes, a nifty feature of it's Airport Express Base Station that enabled iTunes music to be played over your wireless network.  But now that Leopard supports A2DP, it seems very possible that Apple will create it's own Bluetooth Audio Gateway.

AirTunes vs A2DP

AirTunes was a great first step in wireless music, but it can't totally eliminate your computer's audio cables.  For one thing, AirTunes only plays music from iTunes.  This prevents other sounds from disrupting your music, but in the end it's just too limiting.  You can't use AirTunes for listening to Pandora, watching a DVD, or anything that isn't iTunes.  Another problem for AirTunes is the only way to get it is with Apple's Airport Express Base Station.  The Airport Express is a wireless router, wireless print server, and it includes AirTunes.  The issue is that it's only compatible with an Apple Airport network.  So if you already have a wireless network using non-Apple hardware you can't use the Airport Express on your network.  The Airport Express is also $150, which isn't a bad value, but is too expensive when a decent wireless router is $50 or free with your internet provider.

A2DP uses Bluetooth to wirelessly stream music.  It's based on standard technology so there is already a lot of compatible hardware.  With A2DP all audio is streamed, so can actually totally replace your existing audio cables.  All it takes is a little device called a "Bluetooth Audio Gateway" connected to a stereo or set of speakers and you're ready to stream audio from your bluetooth cell phone or notebooks (providing it supports A2DP).  There are a handful of Bluetooth Audio Gateways out there, like the $60 Motorola DC800 Bluetooth Home Stereo Adapter, but they haven't really caught on.  As far as I know, no company making Bluetooth Audio Gateways really tries to market them.  Also, all the terminology associated with A2DP is just horrible, which doesn't make explaining them to customer too easy.

The Case for an Apple Bluetooth Audio Gateway

Apple could really make a huge impact with its own Bluetooth Audio Gateway.  In some ways the A2DP market isn't that different from the MP3 player market before the iPod or the smartphone market before the iPhone, although it is probably a lot smaller.  The technology is promising, but the existing devices kinda suck, and no one's stepping up to try to make them really popular. The power of Apple's innovation and marketing could change all that.  Apple could continue using the "AirTunes" brand, and just circumvent all the horrible terminology associated with A2DP.  Much like Apple did when it re-branded 802.11b as "AirPort" and 802.11g as "Airport Extreme."  Also, while the current Bluetooth Audio Gateways, are nifty they're not really innovative.  Apple could provide new features to really push the technology and make it more popular.  For instance, perhaps Apple could make it possible to choose which application plays over the Audio Gateway.  Or in addition to a standard 1/8" audio out jack, Apple's Audio Gateway could also have and iPod dock connector.  That would enable the Audio Gateway to be dropped into any iPod speaker dock and wirelessly play music from your computer.  Lastly, Apple loves to provide users with complete top-to-bottom solutions, so it seems unlikely that Apple would be satisfied with users having to rely on Bluetooth Audio Gateways from other companies.

However, I'd love to see a companies like Griffin also Belkin also make a Bluetooth Audio Gateway.  Both those companies have made interesting related products in the past, like Griffin's Tune Center and Belkin's TuneStage (which actually brings A2DP to the iPod).

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