Bryan Caplan  

The Remote Control Puzzle

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How many remote controls do you own?  I probably have at least thirty remotes somewhere inside my house.  The reason, of course, is that virtually every electronic device comes with its own customized remote control.  Some of these remotes try to be "universal," but in my experience, no remote that comes bundled with another electronic device is even close to universal.

This might just seem like an unavoidable byproduct of our vast riches, but here's the thing: Truly universal remotes already exist, but they're almost always sold separately.  My pride and joy is the Logitech 550, which literally runs all of my devices without a hitch.  (I call mine Dawkins, the heir of another beloved remote named Darwin).  The idea behind the 550 is simple: You plug the remote into the USB port of your computer, enter the model numbers of all your devices, and it downloads all the information from the web.  This means that the Logitech is forward-compatible, because the company keeps updating its bank of device codes.  Furthermore, the interface is easy enough for kids, guests, and elderly relatives to use without frustration.

Here's the puzzle: Why do electronics manufacturers keep designing a half-baked new remote for every product, when they could just include a Logitech 550?  Too expensive, you say?  Sure, if you're only buying one 550.  But what if you're buying millions?  Wouldn't scale economies kick in?   And think about all the fixed costs the companies would save - instead of hiring engineers to design a new remote for every new device, they could just email the codes to Logitech.  No muss, no fuss.

Why doesn't this happen?  It's true that this would be the end of the market for stand-alone universal remotes.  But that's just a tiny luxury market.  Wouldn't Logitech rather sell millions of its remotes in bulk to all the major electronics companies?  In any case, Logitech hardly has a monopoly of universal remotes - so if they won't sell in bulk, it seems like the competition would, no?

What am I missing?  Or is my idea on the verge of happening?


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Dick King writes:

For one thing, you need a computer to use it, and a modicum of knowledge of how to use it. [Yes, it would be possible to preload the remote that came with a particular appliance with the codes for that appliance, but if a consumer uses it that way they end up with a half dozen identical-looking remotes with different functions.] The fact that you need a computer mitigates against this proposal for low-end devices.

For a second thing, it's wasteful because most consumers would end up owning several of them, but only needing one per room plus a spare when they lose one.

In the past I've gotten cheap universal remotes with devices that have no function without some other device [think VCRs and DVD players, which require a TV] already programmed for their device and with a little booklet of TVs and the corresponding codes. However, the manufacturers seem to have given up on that.

What strikes me as most bizairre is the number of different codesets there are for one kind of device. There's no reason why there are 1234 codes for "TV: volume up" in this world.

-dk

Paul G writes:

Dick:

I know nothing about TV remote control codes, but if I were designing a system for remote controls, I would set a standard codeset for actual controls (Volume, power, etc), and then a specific code for each device. Then you send to the TV (3333-Volume Up) and if "3333" is the code for that particular product, the volume would go up and if it's not the TV would ignore it. That way, someone with a bunch of TVs for whatever reason would be able to change the channels separately. I don't know what people would do if they have more than one of the same TV, though...

Gary Rogers writes:

We always called it the NIH syndrome. (Not Invented Here) There is something about engineers that make them think they can and want to reinvent something like a remote control device because they can do a better job than the thousands of others who have done it before. I think it may be related to protectionist tendencies in the general population.

Creating standards goes against the nature of most people, but leads to long term efficiency and productivity. It takes lots of convincing and arm twisting to get everyone to accept something that somebody else invented. This has a lot to do with why we are not on the metric system. It would be great if someone took your advice and pursued this.

As societies go, however, I think we have done a pretty good job of standardizing and building on the success of others.

mark writes:

I love the logitech, but most of my relatives over 40 find it too complicated.

Joe writes:

A better way might be to keep the way they do it now, but also sell the same item at a lower price with no remote. Then the market can gradually move toward remotes as independent components. Maybe the extra cost of managing two different packages uses up the potential savings, or maybe they just do it that way because they always have.

Smartypants writes:

I second the comment on usability. Universal = many functions = too complicated for most people.

kurt writes:

Remotes can be part of the company brand, you won't ever find one without a corporate logo or sign. And they can be stylish too, like the Ipod remote, which can be nicely put on the coffee table to indicate to guests that the host is stylish too.

Marcus writes:

I wonder how much longer it'll be before we're controlling the devices in our house with our cell phone?

Vinnie writes:

Going off comments nos. 1 and 2... Why not...

A) Offer two prices--one with universal remote, one without remote for those who already have it.

B) Give everyone the remote with the product to avoid the undesirable consumer chore of thinking and let them send the remote back for a rebate.

MattYoung writes:

They want click efficiency. different clicks for different product types.


Prakhar Goel writes:

Simple reason: remotes are dirt-cheap, there is little demand for universal remotes, and maintaining separate package lines would be even more expensive because of the extra bookkeeping. Besides, customers already complain about having too many choices. Adding one more to the mix won't help.

As to the 2nd point, the universal-remote industry serves as a good measure for the frustration with too many remotes. In your own words, the industry is a "tiny luxury market." Ie. people don't really care for the product.

p. sigmon writes:

I think that the reason for the generic remote controls is similar to the reason you can't purchase a Ford or Toyota off the dealer's lot with an Alpine stereo pre-installed. Is the Alpine better than the Ford stereo with 'Sync' technology? Yes, I'd say so. The problem is that it eliminates a point of differentiation between products in a tough market. Just as the auto manufacturers design custom radios that fit with the interior style or have features to market towards a particular audience, many electronics components have a certain feature that they are trying to hype in order to sell product. Not including a button on the remote specifically for this feature would make it more difficult to sell and use.

Let me go on record as saying that I have a Harmony 550 remote on my coffee table right now, and I feel that it was one of my top 5 electronics purchases ever. I just doubt that most people care that much, and the manufacturers know it. They want to use their remote as in store advertising to help sell their product.

Mark Wonsil writes:

There are already apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch that allow you to make it a universal remote. Windows mobiles devices (including phones) can do so as well. Is it important that Logitech sell the whole remote or just the "innards" giving manufacturers the ability to brand the remote? Who cares how it works as long as they all work the same? Standards are fine as long as they are flexible enough to expand into new capabilities. A microwave doesn't have a volume and a DVD player won't defrost...

mjh writes:

Personally, I think that remote controls suffer the same basic problems as computer software compatibility, but only in slow motion. Software compatibility used to be a much bigger problem than it is now. Now, if you want to be (almost) universally compatible, you make your application live on the web. The web, of course, starting off as a set of standards that have evolved over time. Why did they evolve? Because tons of people started trying to develop applications that used those standards, and good ideas emerged and were accepted.

But with remote controls, you simply don't have enough developers to advance the ball down the field. And that small number of developers don't share with each other. (Akin to how it was 40 years ago in the computer world.) And, given the limited applicability of remote controls, I suspect that emerging standards will be a process that takes a long time to mature.

But I'm just guessing. I could be wrong.

Scott Wentland writes:

Marketing explanation: You can write on the box: remote included.

Economic explanation: space and income are relatively abundant, while time is relatively scarce. As we get richer (and buy more TVs, DVD players, etc), we also tend to have more space available. So what's another remote on that bigger coffee table? We could cut down on that space with a universal remote, but that takes a lot more time an effort (at least upfront, though the universal remote will save time in the long run if you don't have to keep looking for the other remotes and spend less time moving from remote to remote). But to some people (e.g. my grandparents), programming a universal remote or downloading the information through the computer would take an enormous amount of time and effort.

I'd guess that richer, busier, and older people have more remotes, all else equal.

Dan Weber writes:

Technically there is an issue making a universal set of codes, and that is that codes conflict. "POWER ON" on one device might be "FAST FORWARD" on another. You would need manufacturer buy-in for the new codes to work, and people aren't going to hop on if the new system's "MUTE" is the same as the "VOLUME UP" of their current line.

So you would need to find a new set of codes that no one is using right now, which is kind of hard given that remote control codes are a wild west.

Functionally there is the fact that you cannot have one "VOLUME UP" code. Does that turn up my stereo or my TV? Does "CHANNEL UP" change my TV, my VCR, my DVR, or my cable box?

I opened up the battery compartment of the family remote the other day and it had a website address, which listed the codes to make the remote work with the VCr and DVD player. It's not 100% forward-compatible, but for a $10 piece of hardware I don't care that much.

Jarrett Frazier writes:

I believe that having one universal remote to control everything from TV, speakers, dvd player, blue ray player, satellite/cable, etc. would be great. The requirement of computer programing shouldn't be a problem, cause if you have enough systems to need a universal remote, then you more than likely have access to a computer. Still I do not believe that the universal remotes should completely replace all remotes. As for myself, I am a college student living in a dorm room. Currently my roommate and I have three remotes all for the same television. Typically we will randomly lose one in the sofa or somewhere in the room for a length of weeks. If we were to misplace a single universal remote, it would be mayhem!
Nevertheless, the economic idea of every household only having one remote is very resourceful. The product makers will simply need to impute the frequency channel into the item and not worry about their own version of a remote. This would save numerous resources at the companies, they wouldn't waste materials on the remote itself, employees could spend more time researching the main product instead of remotes. All in all the use of the universal remote will save companies time and money that they can spend on other necessities. Just like on a budget line it makes more sense for the company to specify on the one single product such as a television, rather than splitting the production with Tv's and remotes.
Overall it is economically and resourcefully beneficial to have universal remotes. Event hough it might not be the socially preferred method, it does have the best outcome.

BelindaWCU5956 writes:

I don't have a Logitech but I do know people that have one. They are very convenient and easy to set-up and use. I agree with those who say that everyone should get one with a new product (such as a tv), but I also agree with those who say we shouldn't. This is for the simple fact it requires a computer and a good knowledge of how to use a computer. What happens to those who don't have a computer or aren't able to work a computer well enough in order to program the Logitech? I would love to have a Logitech for all my devices that I use regularly (such as tv, dvd, stereo, and cable box), but I don't have the money for it. Money is the other key issue in this problem. Not everyone has to money for it, even the manufactures, especially no during these economic times. In conclusion I agree that it would be easier and more convenient, but it all comes down to universal remotes are cheap and readily available.

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