With Sky confirming it is developing an app that turns an Apple iPhone or an iPad into an intelligent programme guide and remote control for its set-top boxes, talk has inevitably turned again to whether apps are the best solution for interactive television.
It’s clear changing TV viewer habits (more internet and on-demand content) are beyond the capabilities of traditional basic remote controls, so the industry is right to be asking what comes next. But in my view, despite the prevalence of smartphones and tablets apps should be a complementary service alongside a pointing device. It’s true that smartphones have several advantages: most people own one, they have large, bright display screens and they connect to the web. But the real value over a traditional remote is that many are touchscreen and very intuitive, and the on-screen buttons can be customised to suit the specific context.
But in my opinion the phone/tablet is not a perfect solution for two reasons:
Firstly, phones and tablets are inherently personal devices whereas the TV provides a communal experience. Surely therefore, the interaction device needs to be a shared one that can be left in the living room. Otherwise I can see the app working for a single-person home but I know how frustrated my children would be if the TV was controlled by my phone/tablet and I took the fact it’s a ‘mobile device’ literally and carried it with me to work…
Secondly, the ease of use of a remote is its direct link between the remote and the controlled device. Phones and tablet don’t have this direct link with the TV or STB. Therefore, you will always have to go through a few steps before you can control the TV. Moreover, phones and tablets tend to go to sleep between uses! So despite being able to perform many tasks through an app, the user risks not being able to change the volume without going through several steps to reactivate the device.
With all this in mind it seems to me that, although the traditional remote control is out of its depth in today’s changing environment, it needs to evolve to a more capable but simpler version of itself rather than be completely reincarnated.
It’s true the basic interaction of left, right, up, down and enter buttons cannot cope with the additional functions of smart TVs or connected TVs but we should remember that remotes have traditionally been designed to be as low-cost as possible. With a little innovation and care they could be the answer to an interaction device that consumers are used to using with only minimal extra cost to service providers and consumer electronics manufacturers.