Remote: Mouse of the Digital Lifestyle?

A few months ago, while working on a cover story for Business 2.0 (read: Do this Get Rich), I proposed an idea that a remote control type device that solved the complexity issues in the digital lifestyles was going to be a slam dunk. This was my elevator pitch for what I called, D-Mote:

As our homes fill up with all sorts of new digital electronics, PCs, PDA’s, Wi-Fi routers, home networking equipment, flat screens, and IP-based phones, consumers will have a harder and harder time connecting them all together. Most of us are still struggling with all of these gadgets. We are not ready for the converged lifestyle. That is why we need the d-mote. This is a digital remote that can automatically find and configure all the networked devices in your home. Think of it as a home entertainment network administrator for dummies.

It is a device with buttons and a small screen like on a PDA, along with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. What makes it so useful is that it has smart software that can help configure and manage all these devices easily, and upgrades itself automatically over the Internet as new devices and networking standards become available. The D-mote can tell users what music, movies, or data is where on which device. This will mostly be a software play, but initially will be sold as a device that will run on either a Palm or PocketPC OS and support a whole bunch of networking protocols. When a new device is brought into the home, the D-mote connects to it and configures it to work with the existing network. Well obviously the venture capitalists did not care much about the idea. Here is what they had to say.

D-Mote This startup would have developed a remote control that would automatically find and configure all the networked devices in your home, as well as manage all the digital content. Only the name was on target; the VCs demoted this clunker to the bottom of the heap. The fatal flaw? Giants like Microsoft, Sony, and others are already working on their own solutions for the problem. “Why won’t it be in Windows?” Storm Ventures’s Sanjay Subhedar asked with a chuckle.

Others were not as kind. Stewart Alsop, New Enterprise Associates quipped, “I highly recommend you guys stay editors. This territory is hard for startups, because you need a lot of capital to survive, and getting a lot of capital is difficult. Moreover even big companies have a tough time getting remotes to work.” Well with the heavyweights dismissing it, I was just a tad discouraged, and forgot about it, since more pressing issues were on hand. But this past week, the idea began to haunt me again, courtesy of some executives from Logitech, the PC peripheral maker.

3938.gifLast week, the company spent $29 million in cash to buy out Intrigue Technologies, makers of Harmony Remote. Harmony Remote is a remote control that can be updated and used for controlling many devices – thanks to a CDDB type database that stores instructions for thousands of devices. Users can easily download these instructions from the Internet (Sort of like getting CD track information from Gracenote database!) and update the remote using a USB connection on a computer.

When asked why the company spent so much cash, David Henry, Logitech senior vice president of the Control Devices Business Unit said, “We believe that the advanced remote control will establish itself as ‘the mouse of the digital house’ and that Logitech is uniquely positioned to do for the emerging digital devices in the living room what it has already done for the PC.” The analysts have also chimed in.

“The market for convergence and advanced entertainment remote controls that provide simple solutions for using today’s complex entertainment systems will grow as consumers become aware of them,” said Tricia Parks, president of market research firm Parks Associates. “Our early estimates indicate that the worldwide market for these types of remote controls will be approximately $500 million in 2004, with annual future growth in double digits.”

“The category of advanced remote controls is in its infancy,” said Bob O’Donnell, senior industry analyst for IDC. “There is potential to completely transform this category and accelerate its growth, when you combine the convergence of the PC and consumer electronics with innovative new concepts and designs.”

But it was what Bryan Mcleod, chief executive officer of Intrigue, said that has me convinced that this is going to be a big opportunity. He said, that the company could in the future support any wireless communications standard – Radio frequency, WiFi and Bluetooth – and enhance the functionality of the remotes. In his mind, the remote ideally should be “activity based.” For instance today Harmony when told to “play movie” can dim lights of the room, turn on the DVD/home theater system, and television and basically create a whole environment.

While watching American Wedding, the phone rings, and you hit pause, the lights go up, the system idles and the movie experience pauses for a minute. This is brilliant. I think what is more brilliant is that companies like Intrigue realize that it is good to give power to the people. A smart user knows more about devices he loves and uses. The next step could be downloading the instructions from the internet for say a Roku Soundbridge, a Microsoft Media Center (Shudder!) and other motley crew of devices. I think given Mcleod’s ideas, my dumb ass pitch for a D-Mote doesn’t sound so stupid after all.