Tech companies are choosing profit over customer mindshare — with the exit of Logitech in the Harmony Universal Remote Controllers (URC) market
By Daniel Chun
Updated on Apr-22
It is no April’s fool day. It’s a fact now that two big consumer electronics company had made it official in early April 2021 that they are discontinuing their line of smart electronics products — first with LG exiting the smartphone market and now with Logitech discontinuing its Harmony line of smart universal remote controllers.
Consumer electronics continues to be one of the product categories that impact our daily lives since the invention of the television sets, desktop computers, console games and all kind of toys and gadgets. With the proliferation of broadband Internet access across the board in developed nations, it is also evidently one of the most competitive market to be in. Since the inception of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo became mainstream for new innovative ideas, there have been many new projects in consumer electronics clouding the market with new features and promises. This inherently had also forced the market to be more competitive in all directions (E.g., form factor, price, features, HID control interfaces).
The history does tell us that constant innovations created for the mass market could pay off as seen with the growth in Amazon, Google, Apple which all have their fair share in manufacturing hardware in consumer electronics with the Amazon Kindle, Google Nest, and Apple’s devices like iPhone and MacBook. Bigger corporations like LG and Logitech are therefore experiencing challenges and opt to choose their battleground while they still have a choice. In the case of LG, they were innovating bringing different features to the appliances industry before jumping into the smartphone market. Logitech, on the other hand, had pivoted to gaming and eSports for which they have a significant market following for their keyboards and gaming accessories. The history of Logitech involving in the market of universal remote controllers dated back to 2004 when Logitech acquire Intrigue Technologies Inc. Since then, Logitech had been working diligently to enhance the user experience in setting up and operating the complicated but yet non-standard legacy-infrared remote controller market. This market has been divided by the organic fragmentation of the different brands of electronic end-devices which each uses its own remote controller and each have adopted their own infrared code protocols (by our count over 400 protocols). This universal remote controller (URC) market does have a significant market globally as replacement remote controllers and as catch-all multi-device remote controllers. The leading brands are Philips, GE, RCA and these are usually found in mainstream electronics outlets and online stores. In summary, the market is still very much alive as it is but it is just not the market for Logitech at the premium level.
(Updated on 22-Apr) Apple just released a new Apple TV remote and it still has Infrared remote functions in addition to voice-control using Siri. It’s pricey but yet it shows that the 4 keys (Ch-Up, Ch-Dn, Vol-Up, Vol-Dn, On/Off) are still very critical for content companies and OTT applications. Remote controllers need Infrared because of low cost, long-standby and have no need for pairing — the caveats is its one-way signaling.
Check this YouTube video produced by Retro Tech: Smart Homes with Marques Brownlee presenting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccnlAVDXd7k&t=348s and please see the picture below for our company’s first entry into the world of universal remote controllers. Today, we still serve many tier-1 customers to solve the problems of gaining access to the last mile of these legacy-infrared controlled devices. See www.RemoteBLE.com for more details of our solutions in chipsets and IR code library.
When Logitech had ceased to provide support on Sep 30th, 2020, to the once heavily promoted Alexa-powered and AI-speaker and voice-control experience with the Harmony Express, this shows a sign of lackluster commitment in the belief of AI market — a stark contrast to the early glory and conviction of delivering the Harmony experience. But the hype cycle of AI could also explain the demise of this specific use case. Given the short history of only launching back in April 2019, it was merely 18 months, one might ask why Logitech had made this decision. This is what we think are plausible — Firstly, the market in URC is dwarfed by the huge demand in all kinds of keyboards, joysticks and mouse accessories in gaming and eSports (particularly due to the last 16 months of staying at home) and secondly, it is due to the lack of standards in infrared codes.
Lack of standardization in the world of Infrared.
Apple makes their own standard with MacOS and iOS, Amazon invented the eBook Reader industry with Kindle, Google acquired the Nest thermostat making it a de-facto standard. These successes are all related to ability to create standards for the applications. Logitech Harmony was successful in deploying user-friendly application but did so at the expense of keeping it proprietary, and this proprietary interface meant it will be a closed system, (and not an ecosystem )— from chipsets to finished goods — barring others. In consumer electronics, especially in TVs, Audio, Sound bar, set-top box, fans and A/C there were no standards in infrared code to begin with. Each consumer electronics brand has implemented its own infrared-protocol with its supply chain and design-in solution; thus making it (arguably) non-universal perpetually until this present day — this is where the intrinsic problem lies. To its credit, Logitech’s ability to create a following is related to the capability to collect worldwide the different infrared codes from a plethora of consumer electronic brands, and this is not a simple process to break through. In fact, there are only a few companies in the world (including Remotec) that could still do that. What Logitech also did well was also to develop the software that also handles the programming and control of other devices (exceling in the user interfaces and experience) which implemented the industry standard of HDMI-CEC. HDMI-CEC will continue to be important as leading remote controllers manufacturers like UEI, Omni Remotes, companies as such are also driving the user experience to adopt various proprietary and often patent-protected solutions.
As an example, the latest Google Chromecast still uses Infrared code because this OTT device still have to connect to the plethora of different brands of TV devices out there (installed base) in people’s living room. Same as all other OTT players such as Roku or cable TV MSOs, they all have this need to connect to the TVs.
The movement in standardization of infrared codes
Remotec Technology Limited has designed a universal remote controller encoding-decoding protocol and had been supporting open industry standard first with supporting a commissioned work by Green Peak in the ZigBee RF4CE ZRC 2.0 standard for the infrared protocol and lately for the Bluetooth environment. By standardizing these infrared protocols, many chipsets and solution providers enjoy the benefits of open protocols (non-proprietary) and could easily deploy smarter application to control millions of these installed base of consumer electronics with literally over 400+ protocols. Logitech could have done that too, but preferred not to since they only serve the top-tier premium market in the URC market (including the installers).
And finally, a handheld remote is really not going to go away.
Hear me out — when you have an Alexa-voice enabled remote controller, you are conceding your rights to the traditional key-based input of human interaction devices (HID) controls. This is the case as explained by Mike Pospero in his article on Tom’s Guide on how buttons such as the “Back” button is still important, yet it cannot be found in the Harmony Express. The usual expectation of the customers who had been trained to understand the use case of “ESC” or “BACK” button now needs to adapt to yet another method and this will take time.
Remotec had first debuted the world’s first universal remote controller in 1988 under the brand name Bondwell (Bondwell Computers) and that was the industry that still exists today with leading brands such as GE, Philips and RCA. Remotec has always been working with radio-frequency chipset companies and standards organization such as ZigBee, Z-wave, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and ULE to deploy ready-made IR database solution (chipsets and cloud-based IR code library) for over 30 years to many top tier customers around the world. At Remotec, we believe the consumer electronics segment will continue to need infrared signals for various reasons (cost, performance and user behavior). And this notion is somewhat contradicting to what Logitech has stipulated as the sole reason for their exit in this market — due to wider adoption of voice activated systems and OTT applications. As a matter of fact, with the growth of the smart speakers since a few years ago, we have observed a stronger adoption of infrared-based bridging extenders and the use of our IR chipsets and cloud-based IR library solutions for various applications in order to connect to the legacy-IR controlled equipment. At Remotec, we have continuously invested into the building a high quality IR database and we have also successfully prosecuted and acquired a series of remote controller related patents in addition to the prior art shown above. We believe the market will continue to grow in the coming years.
In summary, the advantages of creating the standard interfaces will become the most critical piece of the puzzle for different consumer electronics to connect the last mile of these infrared-controlled equipment. And finally, I am no stock analyst, but I do think the return on investment is much better in the other categories for Logitech than in universal remote controllers.
Our Vision (updated on 22-Apr)
The need for hybrid remotes with two-way connectivity and Infrared will continue to survive and will be churned out by the industry — especially with Android TV, various OS variants that are Linux-based and MSO’s cable platform.
Daniel Chun is the CEO at Remotec Technology Limited — a Chartered Engineer, a named inventor and had been actively promoting various applications using Infrared Code. Daniel is a contributor in standards body for implementing infrared encoding standards and chairs the Hong Kong’s Smart City Consortium’ Research and Blueprint committee and as Vice-Chairman at the Hong Kong Electronics and Technology Association. A list of the service and product websites below are from Remotec Technology Limited — based in Hong Kong.