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Get us out of remote-control hell!

commentary Want to see one of technology's greatest failures? Look in your living room.
Written by Patrick Houston, Contributor
commentary Want to see one of technology's greatest failures?

Look no farther than your living room. Chances are you'll see--sitting on the coffee table or the ottoman or the couch's armrest--a gaggle of remote controls, collectively embodying a consumer experience that ranks right up there with telemarketing calls, cell phone pricing plans, and HMOs.

OK, maybe they aren't that  bad--but they're close.

It takes me no fewer than three remote controls to operate my home-theater system. Fully grasping how any one of them works requires a PhD--and all I have is a lousy Bachelor's. There have been times when, in utter consternation and confusion, I've gone into a frenzy, pushing any button, every button, on a Hail Mary hope that something, anything, will work.

And you know how remotes just disappear? Having three or more only guarantees that one will be eaten by the couch or swallowed by the easy chair. What could be worse than having to get up and actually change a channel? I'd rather join Frodo on a jaunt through the Mines of Moria.

But having three remotes--only three--makes me one of the lucky ones. By some accounts, the average U.S. household has between five and seven. A survey conducted at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas put the average at an unlucky 13.

This is clearly a case where convenience can be too much of a good thing. If we can make root canals painless, why can't we do the same for remote controls?

I'm sure it has something to do with the increasing complexity of TVs, DVDs, and stereos. They're coming packed with more and more features, and so you've got to operate them with correspondingly complex remotes.

And we're only getting what we ask for, or so says Michael Greeson of Parks Associates, a market research firm that follows home technology. We expect every device we buy to come with its own remote. Electronics makers are only too happy to comply because, Greeson says, your typical remote costs them as little as 60 cents to supply. At that price, why not?

But I've had enough. I want a single device that will operate everything. I want it to be easy. And I don't want to have to get a second mortgage to buy it.

So I've decided to go on a search for the best universal remote control. I embark on this quest having recently encountered some potentially promising solutions.

• At its recent developers conference, PalmSource, the maker of the Palm OS, honored its top applications of the year. Among the honorees: a universal remote-control application from a company called NoviiMedia in San Francisco.

• At CES and then at the more recent Embedded Systems Conference, I crossed paths with the iPronto, a sophisticated (and expensive) Linux-based device from Royal Phillips Electronics. Along with your home theater, it'll also operate the lights, the furnace, and just about anything else in the house.

• At the Connections home-networking conference, I found the elegantly simple Harmony Remote from a Canadian company called Intrigue Technologies. (Watch the video here.) Right across the exhibit floor, I got a look at three different devices from Universal Electronics, including a remote application called Nevo that runs on Pocket PCs and on the ViewSonic Smart Display.

Do these universal remotes really work? If they do, how well? I'm about to find out. So are you. I'll be test-driving the Harmony Remote and the three remotes from Universal over the next few weeks. I'm also putting out feelers to other vendors.

I'll be reporting back on my experiences through a series of occasional columns. Meanwhile, I want to hear about your remote-control frustrations. Have you found couch potato contentment in the form of a single, versatile, easy-to-use device? If so, let me know.

Patrick Houston is an editorial director with ZDNet's AnchorDesk.

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