Over at TIME.com, my Technologizer column this week is about using smartphones as universal remote controls–and especially about using Peel, a neat software-and-hardware package that turns an iPhone into an uncommonly slick TV remote. As we move towards an era in which just about everybody has a smart phone on his or her person at all times, I’m betting that we’ll see dedicated plasticky remotes start to go the way of the floppy disk.
For now, though, we have to retrofit smartphone remote apps into a world that’s mostly designed around the remotes we’ve been using for the last few decades. And most of those remotes use infrared to talk to TVs, DVD players, DVRs, and other devices. That’s why Peel comes with two separate pieces of hardware that perform the fairly complicated task of getting your iPhone (which has no infrared port) talking to your living-room electronics (which, in general, speak only infrared). The Peel setup is clever, but it introduces a potential point of failure and is the main reason that the product costs $99.95.
Infrared was a swell technology in its time–and certainly an advance over the ultrasonic approach used by Zenith’s Space Command, the first big-time TV remote. (Zenith TVs that used Space Command could be confused by other high-pitched noises, like the jingle of a dog tag.) Today, though, in an era of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and RF, infrared feels like part of the past–it’s not compatible with modern gadgets and just doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t go through walls and doesn’t even perform reliably when the device you’re trying to control is in the same room.
Infrared has been a dead technology walking for awhile now. If you’re as old and grizzled as I am, you remember the days when it was a very common feature on laptops and pretty much universal on PDAs and early smartphones; it’s disappeared from those devices, and nobody got upset. I suspect that the only thing keeping it alive elsewhere is that it’s a lot cheaper than other alternatives, but that should change as more modern technologies get more and more commoditized.
Some gadgets are already ahead of the curve here–Sonos’s nifty multi-room music systems, for instance, are fully networked so you can control them with an iPhone or Android device, no kludgy intermediary technology required. I’m looking forward to the day when you can pretty much assume that any new device you buy can talk to your phone right out of the box–just as you’ve been able to assume for the past 25 years or so that any new device you buy would come with an infrared remote. (The very first VCR I purchased, in 1985 or thereabouts, came with something that simply doesn’t exist anymore: a wired remote…)