The Lost Remote

Most parents remember the day their child first walked. My clearest recollection was my daughter learning to use the TV remote control. Yeah, walking is cool and adorable and all, but it does tend to get in the way of watching TV. Grabbing the remote and figuring it out on her own was a kind of initiation ritual my girl took into the interactive passivity of modern media culture.

This phase was quickly followed by her learning the second lesson of technology: losing the remote. Given the blank-faced catatonia with which she watched Barney/Rugrats/Jimmy Neutron et al, you wouldn't think the remote could have strayed that far. And yet, it found every crevice and crawlspace the sofa had to offer. At one point, we really did have to go out and buy a replacement, because the original seemed to have been taken into the ether by Jimmy Neutron. It turned up only on the next moving day. Threatened with losing control of the TV, this Dad defensively bought the biggest, most complicated universal remote he could find. Which was fine until my daughter reached her next gadget milestone: finding a button her Dad didn't even know existed.

"How did you do that?" I screamed when she punched up some macro that turned five home theater elements on simultaneously.

In a move repeated many times in the last decade, my gadget girl arched an eyebrow that said wordlessly "Oh, yes, the apprentice becomes the master."

Not so fast, young Skywalker. Comcast may keep me on the cutting edge of the Remote Wars. Its experimental mobile site (m.comcast.net) ties me into my MSO's main account to check email, weather, etc. In its WAP version for most phones the beta site is underwhelming and limited to just a few content categories. In the much enhanced iPhone version (the iSite) it shows a bit more promise, with video clips, Web search, and smooth operation. The TV listings area can assemble a customized set of channels and shows I can consult quickly. Tap a program and it lets me send myself a reminder before it starts. Well, the iSite tries to send me a reminder. Much about the Comcast experiment is either broken or ham-handed. Its search engine is whacked, with a "Brad Pitt" query gushing with irrelevant results. The reminder function just drops me into a confusing blank calendar dead end. I guess I could figure it out if my daughter were here, but that would just undermine the cause.

Comcast's iSite makes the same mistake on mobile that MSOs continue to make online. They want so badly to be portals onto all our digital experiences they forget to focus on the one thing they could do exclusively and well -- help us control our living room experience from afar. The TV listings in Comcast's mobile project are just a couple of links shy of managing my home DVR or digital box. What we really want is a remote remote control -- out-of-home access to the digital set top box. We want to be able to record from afar, send the TV itself reminders to change the channel at 10 p.m. Or, best of all, we want to get mobile clips of the upcoming films and TV episodes and then elect to time-shift (a la iTunes).

The most valuable piece of the mobile Comcast experience actually is buried several menus deep in the video-on-demand listings. Here is where the MSO can add real value to consumers and to its own bottom line. Mobile is handier than the Web and it has a better search engine than the set top box itself (or at least it should). I can browse the film, TV show and sports categories much easier on the worst phone than I can with most set top box interfaces. We often berate the mobile screen for its limited ability to discover content. Compared to digital TV interfaces, however, mobile can be a dream and even help us surface VOD content that otherwise hides fifteen clicks deep. Well, again, I could do all of this if Comcast Mobile didn't return "HTTP Status 500" error messages when I tried to browse the film genres. Apparently, they built this lab experiment and sent all the test rats. Which is to say that cable is still cable.

In the end, Comcast Mobile is a terrible tease. It glimpses a day when we could use the mobile phone to extend and then close the loop with our TV from anywhere. Just as many of us already use mobile headlines to triage news we push to other screens for extended viewing, mobile video may find its first niche as a sample and preview mechanism. The temptation by media companies to "extend" or replace other platforms obscures the more compelling immediate case for mobile, which is to enhance the media experiences I already love.

Someday I will be sitting with my iPhone or Blackberry versions 8.0 in front of the TV while my daughter rests on the set top remote, thinking she controls the room. With one phone button press from Father Yoda that insufferable episode of "Fairly Odd Parents" will switch to a recording of "Mad Men." She will stare at her remote as if it betrayed her.

"How did you do that?" she will scream.

Oh, young Jedi. Ready, you are not.

Tags: mobile
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