Universal remote: When will we get all of our home-entertainment devices to play nicely together?

Where technology is going.
March 29 2011 5:32 PM

The Future of Home Entertainment

When will we get all of our devices to play nicely together?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

This is part of Farhad Manjoo's continuing series on the future of innovation. Read the series introduction, Manjoo's stories on the future of mobile gadgets and the future of the Internet, and readers' predictions about mobile devices and the future of the web.

A few months ago, I tested a bunch of the snazziest universal remote controls on the market. I found all of them lacking. Even the best of the bunch, the much-acclaimed Logitech Harmony One, was more trouble than it was worth. Sure, I liked that the Harmony One included an impressive array of "macros" that promised to get my home theater to perform certain tasks at the touch of a single button—if I pressed "Watch DVD," say, the remote would turn on my TV and DVD player, set my TV to the correct input mode, and even press play. Sounds great, right? It was, except when it didn't work.

The problem was that the Harmony One didn't really "know" what was going on with my home theater system. It was merely guessing. If the DVD player had already been turned on, hitting "Watch DVD" would actually turn it off. Why did this happen? Why couldn't the remote, the DVD player, and the TV tell each other to all get into the correct mode? More importantly, why did my TV have to be in any "mode" at all—why couldn't it recognize when I pressed play on the DVD player and automatically begin displaying the image from that device? I don't have to put my computer into "YouTube mode" when I play a Web video, after all. And when I plug my digital camera into my PC, it automatically detects the device and asks me whether I want to import my pictures. Why are home theater components so much dumber than computers?

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It's because they come from a completely different world. Over the last couple of weeks I've been trying to take a peek into the future of technology. So far, I've looked at stuff connected to the computer industry. But the components in your living room come from a totally separate part of the tech business—the consumer electronics industry, a chaotic, cutthroat world in which there's little cooperation between big players and an alphabet soup of constantly evolving standards. Technically, the problem that I had with my remote control is easy to solve. In fact, every few years some new industry standard comes along that claims it will keep everything in your living room in sync. But those systems have never taken off, and I'll bet that in five years' time, setting up and using a home theater system won't be much easier than it is today. That's because the biggest hurdles confronting technology in the living room aren't technological. They're commercial.

To understand what's wrong with the consumer electronics industry, it helps to take a trip into the computer industry's past. Specifically, we should look at the force that pushed all the different players in the computer business to play nicely together: Microsoft. Sure, there's much to criticize about Bill Gates' ruthless, monopolistic hold over the computer business in the late 1980s and 1990s, but he gets little credit for imposing technical cooperation between the far-flung sectors of computerdom. The parts in your PC are made by a raft of different manufacturers from around the world. Yet with the rise of Windows—and of Intel's processors and hardware designs—these disparate companies had an incentive to work on a single platform. As a result, the different components inside your computer didn't blow up when connected to one another. Instead, they work together more or less seamlessly. Even the companies that didn't go along with the standards benefited from them; Apple now uses PC parts across its line of Macs because making computers any other way would be prohibitively expensive.

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