Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TV remote controls - a salutary lesson in the need to adopt open standards

Today we learn of the death of Eugen Polley inventor of the TV remote control.  Remotes are integral to modern TV watching and the production of hundreds of millions, probably billions of them is an indicator of success.  But these huge numbers conceal an equally huge missed opportunity to deliver better products for people through co-operation and open standards.

The reality is that most TV remotes are awful things, lacking in ergonomics and designed at the fag end of the production process.  To manage all the audio visual devices around the TV most people have to have several remotes all of which use different symbols and have dozens of unused buttons.  It's hugely wasteful and detracts from the experience of using the wonderful technologies that the remotes control.  Eugen Polley's wonderful idea has mutated like an alien swarm and taken over our couches and living rooms across the world because the manufacturers didn't co-operate and agree basic open standards and principles on how remotes work.  This compatibility problem often exists within a manufacturers own product ranges.

The aftermarket  (what you can buy once you have bought your TV set) for TV and audio visual remotes is dominated by poor universal remotes that heroically attempt to back-fill the gulf created by the lack of compatibility. I've had many of these universal remotes over the years, they require hours of persistence to get working across all your devices.  This isn't usually the fault of the universal remote manufacturers, more that they have to work with a baffling array of commands and quirks across devices.  Patenting, fierce IP protection,  competition and an inate unwillingness to co-operate have led to to this awful mess in which the consumer loses out.

I love TV technology and enthusiastically adopt the latest kit. Imagine an aftermarket of remotes where you can buy functional, beautiful even remotes that just work out of the box.  You only need one to manage all the stuff in your living room and when you buy something new it works with that too.  Where remote manufacturers can invest in the aesthetics and customisation of the device itself, rather than in maintaining a huge database of commands that has to be updated from the Internet.  This could once have been made possible by the agreement and adoption of open standards for how TV remotes work.  Now it's probably so late that this can't be done.

Elsewhere in the internet world the open standards community often has trouble getting across to regular folk and policy makers why open standards are important. Remote controls are a salutary lesson on the mess that can emerge if you put competing standards ahead of co-operation.

Polite, on topic comments welcome.

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