The Remote Control Puzzle
By Bryan Caplan
How many remote controls do you own? I probably have at least thirty remotes somewhere inside my house. The reason, of course, is that virtually every electronic device comes with its own customized remote control. Some of these remotes try to be “universal,” but in my experience, no remote that comes bundled with another electronic device is even close to universal.
This might just seem like an unavoidable byproduct of our vast riches, but here’s the thing: Truly universal remotes already exist, but they’re almost always sold separately. My pride and joy is the Logitech 550, which literally runs all of my devices without a hitch. (I call mine Dawkins, the heir of another beloved remote named Darwin). The idea behind the 550 is simple: You plug the remote into the USB port of your computer, enter the model numbers of all your devices, and it downloads all the information from the web. This means that the Logitech is forward-compatible, because the company keeps updating its bank of device codes. Furthermore, the interface is easy enough for kids, guests, and elderly relatives to use without frustration.
Here’s the puzzle: Why do electronics manufacturers keep designing a half-baked new remote for every product, when they could just include a Logitech 550? Too expensive, you say? Sure, if you’re only buying one 550. But what if you’re buying millions? Wouldn’t scale economies kick in? And think about all the fixed costs the companies would save – instead of hiring engineers to design a new remote for every new device, they could just email the codes to Logitech. No muss, no fuss.
Why doesn’t this happen? It’s true that this would be the end of the market for stand-alone universal remotes. But that’s just a tiny luxury market. Wouldn’t Logitech rather sell millions of its remotes in bulk to all the major electronics companies? In any case, Logitech hardly has a monopoly of universal remotes – so if they won’t sell in bulk, it seems like the competition would, no?
What am I missing? Or is my idea on the verge of happening?