Handy power not so remote

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The humble television remote control has been around since Zenith introduced the Lazy Bone remote in 1950. And now it's getting a new job: controlling everything in your home from lights to the MP3 files on your stereo.

"We call it the dashboard for the digital home," said Sanyal Sugata, a marketing director at Philips Electronics in Sunnyvale, Calif. "We see it becoming the cornerstone of the home."

That may be a stretch, and marketing people have made similar statements for a long time. But the remote control is moving to a nicer neighborhood. Philips has introduced high-end Pronto remotes since 1998, but the company has gone all out with its Internet-connected iPronto TSi 6400 remote control, which began selling last month for $1,700.

Yes, that's $1,700 for a remote control, something that usually comes free with most gear and maybe costs $20 if you want a universal remote control.

But don't change the channels just yet.

This is the future we're talking about, after all, and as more objects in your home go digital, you will need a remote control with a lot more electronic smarts to navigate the environment of talking refrigerators.

But, Sugata notes that, with technological advances, "something something that is $1,000 today is $500 in a year or so."

Sitting in the faux living room of the future at the Philips research lab, Sugata laid out a vision for iPronto. Other consumer electronics makers and PC makers envision a centralized server that will dispense digital entertainment anywhere in the home. Such a hub could be a PC or a television set-top box, a networked DVD player or a souped-up video game console. Many of these ideas have fallen flat in the absence of ubiquitous broadband in the home.

But Philips has a different idea: Make the remote control the centerpiece. Since it's portable, you can take it anywhere in the house and control gadgets. And it fits with the idea that computing in the home will be distributed among a number of different devices.

If your collection of music and movies is spread among different devices, the remote control could make it simpler to find various titles by listing them all on the display screen. The user can scroll through television listings on the display, then click on a movie to start playing it from wherever it is stored, whether on a PC, DVD player, or Tivo digital recorder. And if you were looking for a movie you didn't have, you could use the remote to find one on the Web to download.

Naturally, some players don't think the remote control deserves this promotion. "We're bullish on the PC," said Jodie Cadieux, marketing manager at Microsoft's eHome division, which launched the media center PC as the centerpiece of the living room last fall. "It is by far the most interactive thing in the home today. We've done the software to put all of your entertainment in one place in a way that works."

With the newest computers, you can detach a "smart display" from a computer and carry it around the house and still be connected to the PC and the Internet. The iPronto operates in much the same way but Philips is working to extend its use to all consumer devices. And the Philips device runs Java or Linux code and runs on a 400-megahertz Intel Xscale microprocessor.

"The conventional wisdom is the PC is too complicated to penetrate the broader consumer market," said Scott McGregor, president of Philips Semiconductor and a man who insists that Sugata isn't the only guy at Philips who thinks the remote control is a big deal. "If you think of it as a traditional remote control, you don't want to spend money on it. But if you think of it as the control point for the home, it's not so crazy anymore."

Philips, in fact, has a broad product strategy to introduce iPronto-compatible products throughout the year that will add to its value. One upcoming device is a "wireless bridge" that will take wireless Wi-Fi signals and convert them into traditional infrared signals, so that it will be easier to use an iPronto to control existing consumer electronics gadgets.

There are competitors. Universal Electronics has created the UEI Nevo universal remote control, which converts a Hewlett-Packard iPaq handheld computer so that it can be used to control a variety of gadgets in the home, and it sells for $649.

Philips introduced its first high-end remote control in 1998. The iPronto is its fourth offering, and it is targeting it to custom installers of high-end home theater equipment who are smart enough to figure out how to pre-configure the remotes to control a lot of devices.

Custom installers serve the market for home-theater buffs, and Sugata says those installers "sell convenience for users," often with custom remote controls that cost $3,000. Sugata estimates there are millions of homes with rich people who would actually appreciate a remote that could simplify their lives by tying all their electronic gear together.

The Pronto series has proved to be a hit in the high-end home electronics enthusiast crowd. Users program it to control whatever gadgets they have, including stereos, DVD players, VCRs, lights, plasma televisions or digital recording devices. Over time, Sugata said, the technology will cascade down to mainstream users as it becomes cheaper and their digital devices multiply.

To be sure, there are plenty of obstacles to the vision of the super-duper remote control.

"I don't know if this will be practical," said Tom Halfhill, a senior analyst at Micro Design Resources. "What if you drop it? Does that mean you can't control your house lights?" Philips has considered this. Because the device is Internet-connected, the user can configure a replacement remote just by visiting a Web site and downloading the configuration into a new iPronto.

Another obstacle is that it will take time before Philips can enable the iPronto to control all home devices, especially those from other vendors who may not buy into Philips' strategy. Those devices are slowly being made compatible through standards initiatives such as the computer industry's Universal Plug and Play, which will make connecting gadgets easier as it gets launched by an industry consortium of 500 companies later this year.

Of course, if Philips doesn't do its job right, the iPronto might be hard to program and more complicated than having a bunch of device-specific remote controls. Because the iPronto remotes use a configurable 3.8-by-6.4-inch display, they don't need a million buttons just to have a superset of all the possible controls that home gadgets might have. Plus, Philips is trying to build the "hand-shaking" know-how into the remotes so that you don't have to enter a device's serial number and what-not so that it can be controlled with the iPronto.

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