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?
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.
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.
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.