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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

How the Smart Remote Lost Its Way

Quin Werthauer was enjoying a cup of coffee in his kitchen when he heard the news. “Oh, shit,” he thought as he read the email on his phone. “They finally did it.”

For the past decade, Werthauer has run a repair store for Logitech Harmony remotes out of his home on Long Island. A client had sent him word that the company was giving up on the product line and that it would no longer manufacture what had become the gold standard in remote controls. It would sell off whatever stock remained and keep adding to its sprawling database of supported devices. But otherwise, kaput. Powered off. Sent to that big charging cradle in the sky.

That last Friday’s announcement came as an unceremonious post in the Logitech support forums perhaps speaks to just how little the company has valued Harmony in recent years. Logitech hadn’t released a new Harmony device since April 2019, and CEO Bracken Darrell first suggested he might jettison the entire line six years before that. The writing has been on the wall, the floors, the ceiling, the sconces, you get it. If anything, it’s surprising that Harmony lasted as long as it did.

And now that it’s gone? That’s pretty much it for the smart remote, at least in the way that Harmony embodied it: a single controller to rule them all, with its own interface and touchscreen and deep bank of devices burned into its digital brain. A remote that you can program to execute a cascading sequence of actions—turn on the TV and the Blu-ray player and switch the input and start the movie—with the press of a single button. Universal remote buying guides, to the extent anyone produces them anymore, typically comprise various tiers of Logitech devices.

You can still easily find a much more basic universal remote—for cheap—at a big-box electronics store. A couple of companies, most notably Caavo and Sevenhugs, are still trying to make variations on the smart remote work. Amazon’s Fire Cube thinks your smart remote should be your voice, which like most things that involve a lot of yelling gets old pretty quickly. High-end products from Crestron and such persist, if you’ve got a thousand dollars to spare. But for most people, the death of Harmony is the death of the smart remote era.

It’s true that at this point that absence will be felt almost entirely by the most serious A/V heads. But it’s also worth asking why an entire product category—one that aimed to make lives simpler and mostly succeeded in doing so—has largely dissolved.

‘The Mouse of the Digital House’

Logitech didn’t invent the Harmony remote; it bought up the business as part of its $29 million acquisition in 2004 of a Canadian company called Intrigue Technologies. At the time, the proud new parent company stressed the smart remote’s importance to “the last inch,” the intimate points of contact between humans and technology. “We believe that the advanced remote control will establish itself as ‘the mouse of the digital house,’” said former Logitech executive David Henry in a press release at the time.

The catchphrase understandably didn’t catch on. But Harmony remotes did, as a proliferation of home theater devices drove our need for more widgets to control them. This was the era of Blu-ray versus HD-DVD, of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Complex home-theater-in-a-box systems slowly gave way to more broadly appealing one-stop soundbars. Throw in a cable box, and you’re looking at four or five remotes for a single living room.

“If we think about any company that tried to make a dent in that, what comes to mind is Harmony,” says Paul Erickson, senior analyst at research company Parks Associates. “It wasn’t just that they gave you the ability to condense multiple remotes into one; there had been universal remotes for quite a long time. But a lot of them only had 80 percent of the controls that you needed for that Blu-ray player, or A/V receiver, or soundbar.”

Harmony could do it all. Sometimes its software was clunky or convoluted, but it was ultimately more convenient than juggling multiple bars of hard-molded plastic just to watch a dang episode of ER.

Still, there were signs even in the early ’10s that Logitech wasn’t fully invested in the product line, says Werthauer. A former IT software developer for the New York City Department of Education, he started his business in 2010 after discovering that Logitech did not offer repairs. “People’s remotes were breaking left and right and they were complaining about the same thing,” he says. “Logitech was offering sometimes a 30 percent discount if you bought a new one, but nobody was interested in that. They just wanted to get their good old side-arm.”

The first controller Werthauer fixed was his own. But he would eventually have four or five units coming in every day, from all corners of the world: remotes with cracked LCDs, broken USB ports, nonfunctioning IR emitters, busted tactile snap-dome buttons, all in need of care. “I felt very strongly about right to repair, and I thought Logitech really dropped the ball on that,” he says. “I started selling parts and writing support guides and everything else I could do to help do-it-yourselfers have resources that were accurate and detailed enough that they’d be able to maybe even fix them themselves.”

Still, Harmony flourished, notching double-digit sales growth for Logitech in 2010. It wasn’t, though, prepared for the kind of progress the next decade would bring.

Standards Operation

Dispense with the obvious part first: The number of devices in the living room has shrunk, particularly as streaming has obviated DVD and Blu-ray players for many. That’s one remote down. But a development behind the scenes has had an even more substantive impact: the rise of HDMI-CEC and HDMI-ARC.

Yes, standards! Sorry. But before your eyes glaze fully over, know that this part will be quick. The very short version is that HDMI-CEC and HDMI-ARC let your various devices talk to each other for control and for audio purposes, respectively. That in turn means a single remote can get a lot more done. “The state of HDMI as it gradually penetrated throughout all of our audio and video devices, that in itself eliminated a lot of the friction or frustration cases that would lead people to find some solution to remote clutter,” says Erickson. “Those situations didn’t come up.”

Think of when you use a higher-end Roku remote, say, to turn your TV on and off, or control its volume. A version of the streamlined experience that Harmony spent so many years providing now comes built in. That same Roku remote can’t give you all the bells and whistles a Harmony Hub can, but most people don’t need those. And while Logitech tried to diversify its Harmony line-up by adding controls for smart home devices like light bulbs and smart speakers, that remains decidedly a realm of voices, not buttons. (Harmony took a stab at building Alexa directly into a remote; it went poorly.)

“Harmony has a great device that’s not a fit for the times,” says Erickson.

It also seems not to be worth the trouble. Logitech CEO Brackell described Harmony as a “small business” in a 2019 interview with the Verge—about 6 percent of the company’s keyboard business at the time. Logitech’s keyboard business has leapt from $139 million in revenue when Brackell made those comments to $202 million in its most recently reported quarterly financial statement; presumably Harmony’s an even smaller slice of the pie at this point. Crumbs, really.

That’s especially likely given that Logitech hasn’t released a new Harmony remote since 2019. Its complementary desktop software, particularly for macOS, has also straggled of late, Werthauer says. “I think it’s caused them a big headache for such a small part of their business. If you just look on the support forums, there are people having problems all the time. They need help with the set-up, they have questions, they have a lot of trouble with the USB drivers and all kinds of stuff.”

Logitech declined an interview request but did stress that it plans to support Harmony devices for “as long as customers are using it.” But it won’t make new smart remotes. And not many companies are jumping to fill that void.

Think Smart

Despite the clear and present headwinds, a handful of smart remote companies have come on the scene in recent years. There’s Caavo, a box that offers a conduit through which to run all of your HDMI devices that WIRED mostly liked when it launched in 2018. And there’s Sevenhugs, which offers two remote control models, one of which automatically knows what device it’s pointing at.

Sounds promising, even if both cost several hundred dollars. But a company called Qorvo acquired Sevenhugs late last year and seems more interested in the latter’s underlying ultra-wideband technology. (Neither Sevenhugs nor Qorvo responded to a request for comment.) And you can currently only buy a refurbished Caavo, which CEO Ashish Aggarwal attributes to Covid-19-related supply chain constraints.

Caavo also isn’t even really a smart remote company. “While we’re billed as a universal remote, our key goal is to make sure that TV, which is a shared medium, is actually enjoyed be everyone in the family to equal extent,” says Aggarwal. A fancy remote for A/V maximalists isn’t especially welcoming for the in-laws. Caavo’s key benefit is both its role as a sort of traffic cop for your devices and an on-screen interface that lets you move seamlessly from one to the next.

That focus on ease of use has helped Caavo make surprising inroads to the senior living market. It’s still committed to its consumer product, which should resume shipments next month. But the most promising heir to the Harmony throne has found success in a different niche entirely. And its most exciting proposition isn’t pushing buttons, but making information digestible.

“As more and more devices come in, I think a need for a universal interface to make TV simple will remain a problem for some time,” Aggarwal says.

In the meantime, the A/V diehards who kept Harmony alive this long will cling to their devices. They don’t have many other places to turn. The good news is that if those remotes do break, Quin Werthauer is still around to fix them. His business, he says, has already picked up since the news broke.

“We will continue support hardware repairs for as long as we can,” he says. “We’ll be here for you.”

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