A Remote Control that Tells the Future?

By Michael Greeson
President, The Diffusion Group

Earlier this week, Apple introduced a new iPod boom-box and a series of Intel-based Mac Minis. Shortly thereafter, the usual suspects were up in arms that neither of these new products lived up to the pre-release hype for which Apple has become famous. In fact, the press and Apple’s fanatical base of supporters focused more on the disconnect between hype and product than the merits of the new solutions. Such is the danger of being an industry innovator – when your products fall short of being truly original, your own success becomes your worst enemy.

For the purpose of this essay, let’s forget about whether Apple failed to live up to its own PR. In fact, let’s ignore the PR strategy altogether and focus on one of the product announcements: the new Mac Minis. There are a couple interesting features that (while not necessarily spin worthy) may provide a glimpse into how Apple is planning to approach the digital living room.

The New Mac Minis
While not officially positioned as a “living room PC,” the new Mac Mini is Apple’s first intentional foray into this space. The new platform features a variety of entertainment-specific goodies, including a six-button remote, Apple’s Front Row/Bonjour media software package (beefed up to support shared music, photos, and video), a dedicated TV output, a built-in WiFi access point, four USB ports, and S/PDIF audio output. Just to make sure you don’t confuse this with a home office PC, Apple doesn’t include a keyboard or a mouse – just a remote control.

There are two interesting features that serve to distinguish the Mac Mini from other media center PCs. For one, the remote control is very unique. Second, the Front Row/Bonjour software package may be the first to actually deliver on the promise of plug-and-play for digital media. This essay will focus on the remote control. Yes, it is the software package that enables the remote’s simplicity, but the design of the remote deserves special attention.

Ockham’s Razor in Action
The Mac Mini remote control only has six buttons and looks similar to an iPod but without the viewing screen. Let me repeat that just in case you missed it the first time: the remote control has only six buttons and it looks similar to an iPod. Unlike other MCPC vendors and the CE community in general, Apple seems to think that six buttons and a killer graphical interface are enough to enable consumers to easily access and control their digital media.

Avoid adding buttons to a remote control even though we can? Brilliant!

As Ockham’s Razor (also known as the principle of parsimony) reminds us, given a choice between two equally valid explanations, the simpler of the two is preferred. This principle applies equally well to architecture and product design, although it may seem foreign to most CE designers. For example, I recently purchased a multi-room/multi-zone AV receiver from a upscale CE manufacturer, a complicated beast with a remote control that looks like the pilot’s panel of a 737. I’ve had the system for more than two months and I’m still learning how to execute the basic multi-device commands. Does it have to be so difficult to use? Not at all, but many CE vendors fail to grasp the importance of an elegant user interface.

Do they believe we find 75-button devices aesthetically pleasing, or that we savor the difficulties of putting such devices to use? Their delusion is downright sadistic and it seems to be plaguing media center PC vendors as well. Have you seen the remote controls offered with Windows Media Center or Viiv-enabled PCs? Seem remarkably similar to CE remotes, don’t they? (That’s because they are CE remotes.) While Microsoft and others have spent a fortune to reposition the PC as the premiere media platform – and include a remote control specifically to enable the ’10-foot experience’ – they chose a remote control that looks, feels, and functions just like a CE remote. Another lost opportunity to improve the user experience with a very simple change.

Complexity in CE was considered cool a couple decades ago (think of the 70s and 80s, when the quality of your stereo was proportional to the number of buttons and switches it had). Today’s consumer, however, increasingly shuns complexity, preferring new CE designs like the iPod over bulky, boxy, button-laden devices. The desire for “sophisticated simplicity” is becoming an important factor in determining which CE device a consumer chooses to buy, and Apple can take some credit for this trend. A quick glimpse at the iPod (and the simplicity of the iTunes online music store) is enough to prove this point.

Similarly, Apple’s remote control is yet another example of the company’s emphasis on designing elegant, easy-to-use solutions. Yes, it’s just a remote control. But it’s the remote control’s banality that makes it such a powerful expression of deeply Apple believes in this vision, what I call the “sophisticated simplicity” strategy. If one looks closely into the remote control, you can almost make out images of Apple’s future…

In this not-so-distant future, I see Apple introducing a variety of digital home media designs based on the “sophisticated simplicity” strategy, most of them wrapped in Apple’s minimalist hardware with warm blue backlighting and easy-to-use interfaces.

I see a home theater system that unifies traditional digital TV services such as cable and DBS with native broadband connectivity; that locally stores vast amounts of digital media; that can seamlessly access content stored on other networked devices; and that allows consumers to add new components without having to worry about the hassles of configuration.

I see a rush of copy-cat platforms pushed into the retail channel but months too late to head off Apple’s digital living room push.

I see CE stalwarts like Sony and Matsushita, along side PC OEMS like HP and Dell, explaining to share holders why they didn’t think of these things first.

I see all this in a 6-button remote control? Profound insights sometimes come in very small package.

For more information about The Diffusion Group, visit our website at http://www.thediffusiongroup.com/.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.