What the Apple Remote says about Apple

"I don't know that there's ever been a slide that captures what Apple's about as much as this one," said Steve Jobs as he introduced Front Row in 2005. He was referring to a slide which showed, side by side, the simple new Apple Remote (above) and the remote controls for Microsoft's Media Center PCs, which were encrusted with dozens of carbuncular buttons.

Jobs, of course, was right. That slide really is a wonderfully concise summary of Apple's approach to user experience and user interfaces, and how it contrasts with the dominant Microsoft-led paradigms. Apple's remote isn't just simpler and so likely easier to use--although that's important--but it tells you Apple has thought carefully not just about the hardware but about the whole experience. The Front Row interface was specifically designed to be operated with that distilled-down, essential remote, whereas Microsoft created remote controls that could handle not only the simple media playback stuff, but also features that Front Row didn't support, such as live TV recording, and they had to integrate more widely into the preexisting PC layer.

What Jobs's slide shows, then, is that while Microsoft often prizes do-everything feature sets and a desire to create products that existing customers will be familiar with, at the expense of focus and simplicity, Apple does the opposite. It is fearless about ditching old stuff if it thinks the new stuff is better, and that unsentimental boldness is often cited by Apple aficionados as one of the best things about the company. And I get that.

I'm never a fan of absolutes, though. There is some nuance here.

Jobs was clearly saying--and, I have no reason to doubt, truly believed--that Apple's approach was only and completely better than Microsoft's, but I think that's too simple. All that happened, as happens every single time someone sits down to design something, is that Apple picked a particular set of compromises, which it thought resulted in a better overall solution, than those that Microsoft and its partners chose. Yet Microsoft did exactly the same thing: picked a set of compromises that it thought resulted in a better overall experience. Where some see complexity in its remotes, others see richness. Where some see an unwillingness or inability to make a clean break from the past and make something tuned to a new situation, others see a solution that helps them do old things as well as new things, and they welcome it. Where some see something risible, others see something awesome.

It's definitely true that I tend to prefer the particular flavor of compromises that Apple habitually makes, but that's not to say they are always unconditionally better than those that Samsung or Lenovo or Google would. For example, I control my Apple TV at home not with the beautiful aluminum descendent of the original Apple IR controller you see at the top of this column, but with a Logitech Harmony Ultimate.

As is so often the case, if you would just do everything the way Apple wants you to, Apple's solutions are perfect. (As my friend Chris says, it might be a walled garden, but walled gardens are lovely places.) But lots of us want a bit more customization and complexity, so Apple's solutions can break down.

For example, I have the HDMI cable from my Apple TV going not directly to my TV, but to an Onkyo HTX22HDX speaker system (since I want fuller sound than my TV can produce), and so I want to control the volume using the Onkyo amp, not the Apple TV or my actual TV. What's more, my Apple TV isn't the only thing plugged into my TV; I have a PS3, a Wii, and an Amazon Fire TV Stick too.

I could, then, juggle a few of these dedicated, focused remote controls depending on the task--switching inputs using the TV's remote, adjusting volume with the speaker remote, controlling playback with the Apple TV remote--but the Logitech system is nicer. With it, the complexity is front-loaded--setting up your devices and activities remains a fiddly, frustrating task despite revisions by Logitech--but once you're configured, tapping a single button can switch your devices on, switch them to the right inputs, and make sure commands such as "turn up the volume" or "pause" are sent to the correct device for the activity you're doing.

The Logitech Harmony system, then, is orders of magnitude more complicated than that pure, considered remote that Apple introduced fully a decade ago, but the effect is that it is actually much simpler to use, with less cognitive overhead.

It's nothing more than just another, different set of compromises, to be sure, but every once in a while it's worth us Apple users reminding ourselves that Apple's way isn't always necessarily the best way. We'd do well to greet different approaches with curiosity and humility rather than sneering arrogance. Yes, Steve, I can't think of a slide that captures what Apple's about as much as that one either, but that's not, perhaps, as unreservedly a positive thing as you thought.


Christopher Phin

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