Last week, an engineer mentioned his Harmony remote to me. He really loved it and was one of those passionate early adopters. I remembered that they had more humble beginnings, so I went back and did some quick research. Use this for a great case study of the power of design.
Harmony began as Easy Zapper in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario around 2000-2001. In 2002, they were selling the remote pictured, the Harmony Easy Zapper, for $200. It featured all of the technical features that today's users rave about: activity-centered control, easy programming of the remote via a PC and constantly updated software. However, the one big thing it lacks is style: it looks like a Radio Shack bought electronic project box from the 1980s.
Someone else saw the same glaring problem: Logitech. Logitech bought the company in 2004 for the small sum of $29 million. According to their 2005 annual report, "The first Harmony remote to leverage Logitech's renowned design expertise, [the Harmony 880] features a large color screen and comfortable sculpted buttons." That focus on design is what has lead to the 2005 Logitech Harmony 880 pictured here. It retailed for $250.
Here's the kicker: In 2011, Harmony contributed $164 million in revenue and a profit of $57 million to Logitech's empire.
To those who are not familiar with the product, I have a later version, the 550, which retails for around $100. The quality design is evident just picking it up. It has a substantial weight, tight tolerances, no sharp flash around the plastic parts. Moreover, the higher quality (i.e. more expensive) manufacturing is clear: metallic painted plastic and soft-touch painted shell with an acrylic window separated by a line of vacuum-plated trim running through it. That's a lot of operations and assembly by the standards of a remote control that is normally squeezed out of an injection molding machine, stamped with a logo and screwed together over a PCB and some silicone buttons.The real beauty, though, comes through in the interface design something that hasn't changed much from the original Canadian design. First, you install the Harmony software on your computer. Then, you plug the remote into your computer using the supplied USB cable. The software will then prompt you to create a username and password to launch the setup software. You identify your TV, DVD, stereo, cable box, video game system, et cetera through drop down menus or a search function. The database is comprehensive: I've found 15 year old VCRs and 20 year old stereo receivers listed!
After all of your equipment is identified, you set up activities, like "Watch TV." In my case, to watch TV, I want to turn my TV on, flip the input to "HDMI2", turn on my stereo, flip the stereo input to "LD" and turn on my cable box. Harmony allows me program those functions in and create a soft key on its LCD screen. That means when I hit "Watch TV", the remote will do the job of remembering that list of functions and do them automatically. Lastly, if something doesn't work, the remote has a help button. Click it and the remote will run down a troubleshooting list corresponding to the activity you are trying to do.
Aside from those features, the interface is the familiar universal remote. A digit pad, directional pad, channel and volume control and DVD/VCR/PVR controls. Very straightforward.
It's not perfect though; the primary problem that I've had is battery usage. Some versions have rechargeable batteries and a charging station, but mine has 4 AAA batteries. It runs through them every two months, which is a pretty high rate. Another problem is the volume control is very sensitive with my stereo. One click and the volume is vibrating windows, the next I can't hear anything. That's forced me to keep my stereo remote as a back up just for volume control. Lastly, some of the secondary remote functions aren't available. For example, I can't switch my TV input selection without switching activities entirely.