The next iteration of Mac OS X is coming. It doesn't have a launch date yet, but it likely will by the time Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference wraps up next month.
While most of the updates focus on the slow convergence of iOS with the desktop, one unsung gem is sure to delight those of us who rely on the Internet rather than cable for television: AirPlay for Mac.
Just as we already can with our iPads, iPhones and iPods, AirPlay for OS X will allow us to wirelessly mirror the screen of our Macs onto their televisions using Apple TV.
The Cord Cutter's Dilemma: Limited Content
What makes this so exciting for the cord-cutting crowd - and probably somewhat cringeworthy for the network executive crowd - is that there's far more content available on the desktop Web than there is on iOS or any streaming set-top box.
Take Hulu.com, for example. The free version of Hulu's website has long blocked itself from being accessed by Google TV or Boxee. Annoyingly, even the paid Hulu Plus app isn't available on most of these devices. With AirPlay for Mac, TV fans will be able to stream Hulu's content from their televisions for free, at least as long as rumors about the site requiring a cable subscription don't pan out. Hulu is just the beginning.
Although a decent number of video sites have converted to HTML5 since the standard began to emerge (and since Steve Jobs famously spoke his mind about Flash), there are still quite a few sites out there that use Flash to play video back, including those belonging to networks and cable channels.
In many cases, popular shows that aren't available from a source such as Hulu are available on the content provider's website, but rarely in such a way that that content is accessible from an iPad or most streaming boxes. With AirPlay for Mac, that changes.
Even though Boxee and Google TV have Web browsers, they still can't access everything that's on the Web. That's either because of the site owner's preferences or because of issues with the Flash player (an issue that's commonly cited by Boxee Box owners).
Since these devices exist as easily detectable user agents, they can be blocked by scripts or through other means. But a MacBook is a MacBook, and Hulu will never block that. All AirPlay is is a more convenient way to pair it with one's TV.
To that point, you may argue, why not just hook your computer up to your TV using VGA or HDMI? That's easy enough if you have a Mac Mini or laptop and the right cables, but AirPlay will make it easier to do and compatible with less portable machines. For instance, if you have an iMac desktop on the other side of your apartment, you can stream content from that without lugging it over or dealing with long cables.
In theory, streaming from your Mac via the new Apple TV box should support 1080p video, but it's possible that things could get a little laggy on older hardware or on a less-than-stellar network.
Other Uses, From Gaming to Business
The use cases go beyond video content, although that's certainly a huge one. Gamers who want to play desktop games on a bigger screen will be able to do so much more easily, especially if they use an external controller. And it's not just recent, high-impact video games that will find their way to bigger screens this way: Thanks to classic game emulators, it's also an easy way to play old-school Nintendo favorites on the TV.
AirPlay also turns out to be a pretty decent way to beam presentations onto a larger screen, provided it's hooked up to an Apple TV box, which is actually even easier to transport to a business meeting than a laptop is.