What's one of the most hated electronics on the planet? The universal remote.
While companies like Logitech have made great advances in making these electronics devices easier to set up and use, for the average individual, anything with an LCD screen and more than 10 buttons can be daunting.
Apple, which has a history of making complicated devices a simpler affair, could be the next company to take a stab at dominating the third-party remote control market. The company has a good track record of venturing into fields where others have gone for more, and succeeded in offering less. For example, the iPod's click wheel, which was introduced with the advent of the iPod mini married two sets of controls in one. Also, the mighty mouse--Apple's current pack-in for iMacs and Mac Pro towers took the idea of a multi-button mouse and disguised it as a single button device.
The company's latest success came with the iPhone, which removed the large keypad that ships with most smartphones and replaced it with an onscreen keyboard that could be updated in future software revisions as it has been to include international language support and GUI tweaks.
Apple's remote possibilities
So what about one area where Apple has generally held back for the sake of form over function? The remote control. The original remote for the iPod was notorious for having an unnecessarily long cord plug that turned your headphones into a nearly 10 foot tangle-magnet that would require users to purchase third-party wraps or mod it to fit their desired length. Skipping having any kind of a visual interface, Apple opted to keep the iPod's first remote simple, with just five buttons and no screen.
In its latest revision, Apple tacked on an FM radio with onscreen controls and rearranged the buttons to match the iPod shuffle. The accessory is still a far cry from some of the more advanced remotes developed by Sony for its media players which let you see what's playing and navigate the player's UI in a small LCD display.
Apple's next big move into the remote control space came with a revision of the G5 iMac that brought with it Front Row, a simple onscreen media navigator that let users access iTunes playlists, pictures in iPhoto, DVDs, and movie trailers from Apple.com. The remote that came with the computer as a pack-in had the same button layout and general form factor as the first generation iPod shuffle, with the inclusion of two more buttons to go one menu back or return to the home screen. Later sold by itself as a $20 accessory, the remote turned into a controller for all of Apple's devices, including laptops, the iPod universal dock, and the Apple TV.
The future of the Apple remote
After looking at what Apple has done in the past, there are some clues going forward. A good place to look is some of its older products, both software and hardware.
One in particular is networked music sharing, which has been a part of iTunes since version 4.0 (released in mid-2003). Only recently with the advent of the Airport Express has Apple shown interest in giving remote control of the music to users at a software level. Third-party companies like Sonos have made an entire range of audio products that take advantage of Apple not having its own remote control system to access and control music without the use of an in-network computer.
Don't expect it to stay that way for long. Look at what happened with the third-party iPod speaker market. Seeing that others were making millions off its device, Apple stuck its neck out with the iPod Hi-Fi, which bombed due to its high price tag and low feature set in a very crowded market. That doesn't mean Apple's given up on taking a piece of the action where there's money to be made. Device maker Logitech, which sells the popular Harmony series of universal remotes, is expecting to pull in $3 billion in sales in 2010. A chunk of that will certainly be from its remote control product line.
Bet on Apple to add additional functionality to products we're already using. In the case of the iPhone, the hardware and software infrastructure for a remote control is already there. Developers have unearthed code in the latest iPhone firmware release that shows potential for linking up your phone to your iTunes library. Once paired, you could search, browse and play content from whatever device the media is stored.
There was also a patent filed in July 2007 that dealt with transferring metadata from a music or video file to a portable media player (like the iPod or iPhone). While this is related to the above control method for iTunes mentioned above, the patent also throws in mention of other media files like images, video, and games. Not your typical remote control fare.
It goes deeper though. In November the company filed a patent for a multi-user interface design (with actual tactile buttons and knobs) that could be changed on the fly. While a good deal of this went on to be a part of the iPhone, in the patent's example there's clearly some UI that looks similar to the advanced interfaces designed by high-end custom remote control makers like Philips and Marantz.
A year earlier, Apple also filed a patent for a remote control system that took advantage of 3D space to give users physical navigation of menus. The company has already been very busy getting multi-touch gestures into the iPod and iPhone, along with its portable notebook computers like the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. Between that and the success of Nintendo's Wii remote, Steve Jobs and Co. are likely betting that people are more than ready to handle a remote control that does more than let them hit a few buttons.
The smoking gun of all patents though was the one filed on September 11, 2006. Titled "Backup of media libraries," it loosely describes a way to play back and record media content. The patent depicts several ways to access the information, including onscreen overlays and a remote control media interface that appears in a portrait-size display that would fit in your hand. Sound like any devices you know?
What Apple would change
One of the hardest parts most people have with everyday universal remotes is hunting down the codes. Apple's potential solution? Let users pick out the device they're using in a built-in directory. Heck, it doesn't even need to be stored on the device; just access the directory from the browser. Safari's already built into the iPhone, and would likely be packed into any standalone device. Having users simply search through a directory to find their TVs, cable boxes, stereo receivers, and more would be a simple affair, and is already in use for advanced remotes that can be plugged into your home PC.
Another problem is the lack of an IR (infrared radiation) antenna on the iPhone, something that could be solved in the next generation of the device. IR has since been phased out of most phones for its lack of speed or usefulness for most customers, but is incredibly cheap, unobtrusive, and there have already been rumors of a third mystery sensor making its way to the device.
Also, Apple's already got plenty of IR hardware lying around from adding it into all of its computers.
When will it come?
Guessing when Apple will launch or release a product is difficult, but with the upcoming Apps Store for the iPhone, Apple's created a simple platform to offer first-party standalone remote control software to sell to its users. Device makers could also put up digital versions of their remotes to give people a native feel of the buttons they're used to on the regular devices. It's a veritable platform smorgasbord in the making.
Also with the imminent release of a new version of the iPhone hardware, we could also see IR make its way back as soon as next month. The real problem here is that people are unlikely to want to use their phone as a primary remote in place of a remote they can simply leave in their houses, nearby their televisions or other devices.
I think Apple's solution will be to release a standalone product. We've already got a stripped-down version of the iPhone with the iPod Touch--it's likely the company would use the same fab to create an even thinner, storage-less version that serves simply as a browser and remote and sell it for under $200. Combine it as a pack-in with the Apple TV 2.0, or release it as a standalone product released at Macworld next year and Apple will be getting one more tentacle in your living room, and still have you wanting to buy more Apple hardware to keep it useful.