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?

(Continued from Page 1)

The standards that Microsoft and Intel imposed in the computer business might have made buying and using computers easier, but they still rankled the industry. That's because the companies that control a technical platform usually rake in the most revenue. Every other company gets the scraps. Cooperation, then, isn't the natural state of equilibrium—and it's why our consumer electronics are so averse to standards. Sure, it would benefit me if my Vizio TV and Sony DVD player spoke a common language. But who's going to create that language—Sony or Vizio? And why should they go out of their way to make their technology interoperate with a competitor's devices? It's these sorts of dilemmas that will keep every player making products that are just barely compatible with everything else on the market.

But wait a second, you say: Wasn't the Internet supposed to make this all better? Home-electronics companies have indeed started to build network connections into their products. You can now get websites and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and Rhapsody on your TV or set-top box. What's more, the titans of the computer industry have invaded the living room, with Apple, Microsoft, and Google battling to become major players there. As the computer world and the entertainment world converge, perhaps we'll see compatibility come to the living room—see Intel's recent release of Thunderbolt, a cable system that aims to replace all the different wires connecting our various devices with a "universal" standard.

Even if computer companies win the living room, I doubt they are going to make our home theaters much smarter and easier to use. In fact, I bet the opposite will happen over the next five years: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and perhaps several tech startups will create a host of new software and hardware to bring amazing things to our living rooms. I have no expectation, though, that they'll work well together. As a result, you'll have multiple devices with overlapping functionality. New decade, new technology, same old problems.

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What we need, ultimately, is some kind of operating system for the living room. This would be a universal platform that runs on your TV and that could download new functionality—apps, games, movies—from a central place. This system would be smart enough to communicate with any component you attached to it, essentially solving the universal remote problem.

But while everyone in the industry has an incentive to make this platform, everyone also has an incentive to make sure that a rival company doesn't get control over such a lucrative potential market. What's likely to happen? Stalemate—and, at least for the foreseeable future, a forest of electronics that require a lot of work to sync together.

Or perhaps I'm wrong? Do you think we're likely to see peace among living room gadgets any time soon? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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