Whilst driving the other day I overheard some NPR “experts” decrying the state of the cable/TV industry, and citing as an example that one’s elderly relative could use the Internet but not the TV remote. Immediately, I asked myself a naïve question: Why can’t the smartphone be a remote?
And so, I did my usual due diligence, and discovered that there are indeed some apps out there that purport to do just that: allow the smartphone to switch cable channels, and the like. But I also found that there are some surprising limitations at present, which seem as if they could be overcome in a straightforward fashion if someone really puts an effort into it. And it seems well worth the effort for some entrepreneurial person or business.
Let me therefore state the problem as I see it, the solution and why the smartphone should be part of it, and the things that need to be accomplished.
The Cable Navigation Problem
Over the years (as the “experts” noted) access to TV channels has become dominated by 2-4 cable companies, which decide to some extent what you see. Initially, their offerings proliferated to 200-odd distinct channels. Over the last few years, according to the “experts”, the cable companies have discovered that there’s money in sitcoms and dramas whose characters actually evolve over time, because a loyal band of watchers creates buzz over the Internet about the characters – but those series are expensive, and so the rest of the shows per channel must cut expenses to the bone. In practice, that means thinly disguised reality shows (and, secondarily, reruns; but those have a half-life on the order of 2-3 years).
The result is almost stupefying: almost universal prime-time programming of reruns, rehashes (true murder mysteries resliced ad nauseam), and reality shows in the oddest of places. The Learning Channel does not feature learning. The Discovery Channel does not feature science, and the Science Channel is going the same way with science fiction (read: horror movie) reruns. Animal Planet spends endless hours with real-life searchers for Bigfoot; National Geographic Channel does the same with prison reality shows. Biography Channel? Not really. It isn’t just that these bear no relation to their name and what they originally set out to do; it’s also that they bear a great deal of resemblance to each other. And so, counterintuitively, the TV watcher seeking something new needs to do a lot of searching. In fact, the watcher needs to do a lot of digging when he or she finds an innovative show, as the TV screen provides barely enough information to be misleading: “Dangerous Attractions: Relationships that test the limits of …” turns out to be about dogs and cats being pals.
At the same time, the goal of a “universal remote” still seems far off, if the cable company and TV manufacturer offerings are any guide. Often TVs have their own remotes, which do things that the universals don’t, like handle various types of HD display. If there is interference, the TV may turn on and the cable not, or vice versa – and what’s happened is not that obvious. If one accidentally starts talking to the TV rather than the cable, changing the channel knocks the viewer out of the cable universe entirely. And don’t get me started on attached DVD players.
So there are two basic problems:
- 1. Turning TV and cable on is typically a complicated pain in the neck.
- 2. It’s hard to find the right show, because it takes channel surfing through 200-odd channels with no good descriptions to hand.
A Proposed Smartphone Solution
The solution seems straightforward: a flexible piece of software on a remote that gives you one button to push to turn both TV and cable on and off, the usual channel-changing keys, and the ability to semi-automatically display adequate information about the shows, singly or summarized in the traditional TV-Guide timeline. Oh, and the ability to share short comments about shows as they unfold would be nice.
Yes, but what’s the form factor? Today, the universal remote is a single-purpose, inflexible piece of extra junk. What’s needed is something truly programmable, easy to upgrade, handling all the little subcases that universal remotes vainly try to do now, plus be used for other tasks yet to be determined. In other words, something like the smartphone or laptop.
Those of you who follow my blog posts are aware that I have spent a great deal of effort pointing out the things that the smartphone will probably never do, that make it unlikely to take over the computing world. However, in the TV-remote case, these are in fact virtues. We don’t need acres of space to see a blog post or long essay on a show, just enough information to tell if it’s really new and interesting to the viewer. We don’t need to write that long essay, either, just to share a few pithy comments. Now that, imho, the Samsung Galaxy SIII and other Androids have fixed the iPhone-type interface that was likely to put you in an odd part of a task with no obvious way to escape, the user interface to do both turn-off/turnon and search/texting is at least adequate. And it’s just easier to lug the smartphone into and out of the family room than do the same for a laptop.
State of the Art
Anyway, I had reasoned this far when I looked at available offerings from folks like Dijjit and Beacon, and it became clear that there are some pesky details that still need to be solved. It appears that some cable boxes and TVs talk WiFi or Bluetooth, and some talk infrared in their own code. Thus, not only does the smartphone, TV, and cable need to connect via WiFi to a home network for one-button “on” to work in some cases, but the smartphone actually has to generate infrared signals in multiple codes in some cases. The result: a “dongle” on the smartphone or an attached “rock” a la Beacon for channel surfing, and no one seems to handle the full case of cable/TV on/off.
Then there’s the nagging question about what to display about the channels one surfs. It seems that apps are only at the point where a raw download of some cable channels’ TV guides is supported, and even those are designed for less detail than a smartphone user – or a user in general – needs. And, of course, there is no connection between tweeting and channel surfing; but I regard that as a minor inconvenience, since when you tweet you’re going to be typically stuck on a particular cable channel anyway.
Last and least, the vendors seem to be doing iPhone first and then Android – perfectly understandable, given market sizes, but it does delay (again, imho) user friendliness of the smartphone “remote”.
All of these things seem straightforward to fix, with the possible exception of the infrared communications. It just takes time, and will on the part of app and smartphone vendors …
The Bottom Line: The Potential Lies in the Computing
The key to the potential superiority of the smartphone over traditional TV remotes, I believe, comes down to the fact that its pedigree is in the software-dominated software-hardware partnership of computing. A TV’s interface is just plain stodgy, and in attempting to make it a veneer for both shows and the Internet, cable companies are forever playing catch-up, and forever falling further behind. By contrast, the main difficulties from the smartphone side are ones caused by the rigid interfaces of the cable/TV hardware combo.
And yet, the cable companies badly need to attract the generation in its 20s right now – which by all accounts is barely buying cable at all. The prices are certainly too high for a large proportion of this generation, which has been hit hard by the recession; but there is nothing showing their buying behavior turning around soon, and at a certain point, they may conclude they don’t need cable at all; and that could be a death knell. A smartphone remote may seem like an odd place to start; but if it means that this generation finds it interesting to tweet on programs, there is real hope that cable will not destroy its seed corn. As for advertisers, if there is a better connection between the Internet and cable, some of them may well start spending on smartphone ads connected with cable ads – the tail wagging the dog, so to speak. And that should slow the bleeding of ad dollars from TV …
Or maybe not. In any case, it seems to me that we do too much contrasting between smartphones and the computing industry, when it seems to me that the real difference is between these two, who share via Steve Jobs the same software-driven computing DNA, and traditional media – and yes, by now cable is traditional, not too long after actors and actresses started seeing it as more interesting than the movies. I’d love to see the smartphone as TV remote; I think it’s an idea whose time has come, and I would dearly love to deep-six the five remotes (two cable, two TV, one DVD) for two TVs I presently have to have. But even if it doesn’t, similar ideas are happening all the time, for both the PC and smartphone/tablet form factors. Vive la difference et l’identite! Vive le smartphone remote!