My Phone, My Remote: Let the Living Room Wars Begin

"Who did that?" my wife wonders when she see the TV channel change even as the remote control sits abandoned on the coffee table. I am being puckish and have been fiddling with the various mobile app extensions of the set-top boxes we have here in the family test lab: Google TV, Apple TV, Harmony Universal Remote and a Comcast Xfinity app that ties into the cable box. Add to these units the game machines, and we now resort to a small wicker basket to contain the remote controls. "This is grossly unfair," she protests. "You are the only one who even knows how to turn the TV on anymore."

Hee, hee. In modern American families, Dads have to leverage power wherever they can find it. Pop culture has spent the last three decades reminding us what dunderheads fathers are. The remote control is the last pathetic shard left of paternal dominance. And in my new family, believe me, it is a small vestigial sliver of control.

"You can load the Xfinity app on your iPhone and control the box, too," I say by way of conciliation. I expect this is an empty gesture on my part towards power-sharing. She won't do it. She'll never do it.



"Really?" She arches an eyebrow and hunts for her phone.

Drat, she did it. Just as quickly I realize my error. Doh! -- to quote another brain-dead husband. I just armed her in what could be the opening salvoes in the next generation of living room wars: dueling remotes. When I got her the iPhone 4 for Christmas ("Look, honey, we can do Face Time together") I didn't see that curve coming. 

This could be serious, so I deflect and distract. "You should try the HBO Go app first. It has the entire 'Game of Thrones' series we were missing before the wedding." HBO Go apps on both iPhone and iPad are pretty remarkable in that they give you access to the deep catalog of HBO series and some movies in an on-demand format. I can drill into the full series of "Deadwood," or all six and a half seasons of "The Sopranos" now without having to queue up the discs in Netflix and wait for delivery. We are so beyond appointment television in our house that I am now watching more TV series from PBS and HBO on their respective apps than I am on live TV.  

TV Everywhere is real, but now the serious wars begin. As a longtime Comcast customer, I am habituated to hating the brand, but I have to admit that Xfinity's apps are about to pose a genuine challenge to Netflix. The app that serves as a cable box remote control also houses "Play Now" series and films that number 60,000, according to the company. The app even recognizes which premium channels I am and am not subscribed to and allows access to their respective on-demand catalogs. If they can give me app access to content on my DVR, then Xfinity is starting to lock down my loyalty and reverse a decade of resentment over its overpricing.   

In my head I am starting to add up the premium media subs I am carrying now (Xfinity HD, HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime), plus I am renting one-offs from Apple TV. The range of apps that access all of this content is now as confusing and vast as the basket of remotes. Consolidation has to happen sometime. I am not convinced that haggling over content exclusives will be the deciding factor for these warring providers, either. Integration of all the pieces and to some degree smooth functionality will help me decide with whom to consolidate. Netflix still excels in its selection but also its queuing, recommendation and film resume features.  

But what is most striking to me as I play across these apps and experiment with different use cases is how powerful mobile has become so quickly in the living room wars.  My HBO subscription is worthwhile to me only insofar as it gives me access to the current series on-demand on my iPad anytime. Mobile is now a deciding factor in retaining some TV services. This is a very different game and dynamic, much as the prospect of multiple app-based remotes controlling the same devices in my living room could spell marital trouble.

"Xfinity wants the password on our account. What is it?" my wife asks as she loads up the app.  

"Did I show you the wedding pictures my niece just sent?" I counter. "They really capture the beading of your dress."  

OK, OK. I am not proud of myself, either. But the stakes are pretty high here. <

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