Death of the Remote

Ah, the remote control. The gizmo that gets no respect. Lost under the sofa cushions, berated when its batteries are dead, made into a chew toy by the dog, cursed at for having too many buttons, cursed at for having too few. And now the poor thing seems destined to become yet another fine piece of technological roadkill.

Giving credit where credit is due, the remote has been a fairly indispensable device. I mean, when’s the last time you got out of your chair and walked over to the TV to change the volume? If you’ve never even seen a cassette tape, then the answer is never. If you’re really old, you might remember “Lazy Bones,” a wired remote that was used to adjust volume on some Zenith TVs back in the day. More popular was the Zenith Space Command, commonly known as the clicker; this mechanical remote made a clicking sound when you pressed a button, and the TV responded to the sounded command. (Hackers in the 1950s soon figured out that you could also use a similar-sounding toy xylophone to change channels.)

These days, the remote is ubiquitous, but it’s also endangered. Operating far beyond its original chores of changing channels and volume, today’s remote is tasked with a multitude of functions. Users can ignore a lot of feature creep in a receiver, but they can’t ignore the overflow of buttons and jog wheels that these features deposit on its remote. And as we merrily converge home theater gear with computers and the Internet, it’s going to get even worse. Not to name names or anything, but the remote for Sony’s Google TV has more than 75 buttons, and because it’s roughly the size of the flight deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid, you need two hands to hold it. That’s just one example of RGW — Remotes Gone Wild.

In some designers’ minds, the remote has reached the breaking point. Rows of dedicated, hard-wired buttons aren’t exactly optimal for controlling today’s complex, software-driven devices. The alternative? You guessed it. There’s an app for that.

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Much like kudzu or Burmese pythons, smartphones are an invasive species swallowing up everything in their path. Not surprisingly, remotes may be their next prey. Both are handheld devices with a control surface, but smartphones (and tablets) excel because of their flexibility. The soft controls on devices like iPhones and iPads can be optimized for any remote control task. Their adaptability may even lead to entirely new paradigms of control. The advantages are numerous. As TVs become more firmly integrated with the Internet, we’ll be doing more sofa typing; smartphones have some type of QWERTY keyboard, while most remotes do not. Apps may or may not be free, but those dedicated hardware remote controls pretty much always add a cost. And as the functionality of products increases, the cost of the remote controls will only go up. Apps may be a good way to hold down prices. Case in point: A Sonos remote control costs $350, but its iPhone app is free.

More positives: Most people are only vaguely familiar with the operation of the dozen remotes on their coffee table. But I bet they’re much more familiar with their smartphone. It would also be cool to simultaneously watch TV on your phone while you toss some Redenbacher in the microwave. Last but not least, when you lose your smartphone remote, you can always call it and listen for the ringtone.

Smartphones aren’t perfect; for starters, remoting with them is a battery killer. Also, a dumb remote works just fine for simple channel surfing. The sense of dramatic overkill is a real concern. Do we really need a handheld computer and a Wi-Fi network to mute a TV commercial? But if you want to control a system with countless features and Internet connectivity, wouldn’t a dedicated remote wind up being as sophisticated as a smartphone anyway?

Personally, I’m all in favor of this particular takeover. I probably have three dozen remotes stuffed into drawers, many of them for gear that has long since gone curbside. And I would gladly swap ’em all for a good smartphone app. Especially if I could also use it as a xylophone.

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