“Let our rigorous testing and reviews be your guidelines to A/V equipment – not marketing slogans”
Facebook Youtube Twitter instagram pinterest

Harmony Discontinued: The Rise and Fall of the Universal Remote Control

by August 05, 2021
Harmony Remote Evolution

Harmony Remote Evolution

Logitech's announcement that it has ceased production of Harmony marked an important milestone in the decline of a once critical product category, the universal remote control. For almost two decades the iconic clicker has tamed over-abundances of remotes on coffee tables the world over. But why would one of the most widely loved and objectively successful products just shut down? Sure, universal remotes often arrived into our living-rooms as mere accessories to more important devices in our home audio/video systems. But of all of our electronics, the universal remote control is the one we held in our hands as we'd lovingly wipe away the Cheeto dust and sometimes search for in the couch cushions. What does the loss of Harmony say about the ever-changing consumer electronics market itself, and where do we go from here?

The Era of the Set-top-Box Begins

Entertainment CenterIt’s difficult to imagine a time when the universal remote didn’t exist. It was such an obvious solution by the early 80s when cable TV and VCRs became permanent fixtures atop wooden floor model TVs. We may not have known it at the time, but the era of the set-top-box had begun. The VCR would revolutionize our viewing habits, but at the dawn of the 80s it still had a controversial and uncertain future. By 1984 Sony won its landmark case against Universal Studios, unequivocally granting permission to record broadcast TV for playback anytime over the fledgling VCR. The future of the set-top-box and a corresponding flood of remote controls was now unstoppable.

Through the 80s the TV-set itself would evolve into innovative compact designs that began edging out your grandmother’s old wooden floor-model. New Tabletop TVs and a proliferation of set-top-boxes consumer preference led to the 1980s interior abomination known as the entertainment center. These were usually wooden or pressed-wood display cabinets used to house the growing array of television accessories would nestle into the shag carpet of 80s homes across America.

The term Universal Remote had already been adopted by Jerrold, a cable box company (a subsidiary of General Instruments) in the 1970s to describe a cable TV remote. But it wasn’t anything we’d recognize today. It was a large device the size of a computer keyboard that remained hard wired to the set-top-box it controlled. Many of our earliest experiences with remote controls were designed specifically to control the cable TV box that sat atop more and more TV sets as cable grew in popularity through the late 70s. Jerrold was the remote in your home depending on which cable provider you used.

Jerrold Universal

First known commercial use of "Universal Remote"

The Arrival of the IR Remote

I knew a certain early 80s Jerrold remote control well. Boxes of them were piled high at my father’s workplaces in Canada and the US. My dad was an engineer for Canadian cable TV company, MacLean-Hunter. The company’s roll-out of cable services to US cities brought our family down from northern Ontario, Canada to a small city just outside of Detroit, Michigan in 1981. Occasionally, I was brought to my dad’s workplace where we’d watch a recently released movie at his office cable TV feed, it was an inexpensive movie theater substitute. For brief moments I got to hold an early model Jerrold IR handset and navigate more TV channels and dedicated PayTV movie feeds (all unscrambled) than I ever thought possible. A far cry from the two TV channels we received over-air in northern Ontario (and one of the only two was in French). It was a rare and unforgettable rush of media power. We never actually had cable TV at home. Perhaps my dad's opinion of cable TV at the time was an early version of the same ethic that has Google and iOS app developers forbid their own children access to screen-devices.

Jerrold General InstrumentsIn 1994 MacLean-Hunter would be bought by Comcast, a company that hails from the birthplace of cable TV itself, Pennsylvania. At the time, the $1.27-Billion deal only made Comcast America’s third largest cable provider. But it would later go on to earn the distinction of the Number One Most Hated Company in America that we all know today.

In 1980 that a Canadian engineer, Paul Hrivnak created the first infrared remote for a cable TV converter his company made. But his invention would hit the broader market under Philips, an early adopter of IR remote technology that proved a huge success. Philips would go on to release the first true universal remote control in 1985, sold under its subsidiary, Magnavox. But the same year the Philips universal remote hit the market, one man had a vision for an innovative new remote control that has influenced the technology ever since, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniac.

After securing a place in history by creating the Apple and Apple II computers, Apple’s other Steve took an interesting diversion in 1985. Wozniak had a brilliant ideaand the genius to over-engineer it! According to Wozniak's biography iWoz, the engineer had grown weary of his role at Apple that had evolved into spokesperson for the company and he wanted to take on a new creative challenge. To facilitate his endeavor, Wozniak founded a new company called CL9. The name he chose was a variation on the name of a diner he frequented called Cloud 9, located near his home in the Summit Road area of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. Wozniak went to work creating the ultimate brand-agnostic universal remote control, the one to truly rule them all. The result brought several firsts in universal remote control capabilities that would be adopted, refined and taken for granted in universal remote controls to this day. 

CORE: The First Programmable Universal Remote Control

Core CL9Wozniak’s CORE UC-100 was released in 1987, the first fully programmable universal remote control and an invention well ahead of its time. The device used an 8-bit 6502 microprocessor and featured 16 keys on its face. The available keys were multiplied by system called "pages", there were 16 pages of buttons giving the user/programmer access to 256 unique keyable codes. Any key could be programmed to employ the code of any other key as well as its own, hence remote control macros were born. The device could even record or "learn" IR code patterns from other remotes and it featured a serial port so users could program it from a computer. All echoes of things to come with Harmony. CORE even had a built-in clock for timing the automated execution of commands on a schedule. Some users even report programming their CORE remote to turn on their AV system at a certain time instead of using an alarm clock.

CORE looked futuristic in its day with its large buttons topped by an LCD screen. But Wozniak's invention lacked the user-friendliness of Apple products while carrying a hefty price for 1987 at $300, adjusted for inflation that's $710.90 in 2021 US dollars. The CORE UC-100 could be described as a remote that only an engineer could love, and many did. Unfortunately for Woz, this didn’t translate well into sales. By 1988, CL9 and its patents were sold. Although it could have been deemed a failure in overall sales, it was revolutionary and the device had a small but dedicated following that loved it. You’ll find discussions online today memorializing CORE by users, some even claimed it was their primary remote for decades after purchasing it. CORE's basic design would live on and prosper through the 1990s, renamed and repurposed as the PIC-100. But instead of being a consumer electronics device, the programmable universal remote was re-marketed to the medical industry where it was used to control advanced hospital equipment like CTs, MRIs and X-Ray machines.

CL9-Box

The complete CORE kit in its box

Coming of Age with the Universal Remote

My own relationship with programmable universal remotes began in the mid-90s. One of my early work experiences after a term in the US Army involved a stint as a road tech doing house calls for a small electronics repair shop covering Detroit and surrounding-area. Our shop sold and performed in-home warranty repairs for the last generation of a dying TV brand called Curtis Mathes. It was the era when laser-disc, rear-projection CRT displays and Dolby Pro-Logic receivers were the height of home theater technology. I’d love to say I was involved in custom installs of sophisticated systems, unfortunately my experience wasn’t quite that leading-edge. My most common house calls were to seniors and bored housewives in need of help figuring out how to watch TV on their new entertainment systems.

... one device would emerge from the coming decade’s primordial technology overlap, the relatively inexpensive, cloud-programmable universal remote control system, Harmony.

A common headache for the customer was the population-explosion of little plastic rectangular boxes on the coffee table, one for each new set-top-box located near a new big-screen TV. Sometimes the remotes would be expediently marked with masking tape and numbered instructions inked onto each. I usually knew from the brief customer description when the source of the problem wasn’t likely malfunctioning electronics or even a wiring issue, but a case of customer learning curve. Nearly every piece of electronics came with its own remote, but among the multitude was usually one oversized remote control. Unbeknownst to the customer this was actually a programmable universal remote that would often make the customer’s day. I got to see first-hand the eyes of many of those seniors and television-starved housewives light-up at the revelation that a device they already owned was their solution. This one handheld device could solve their remote-overload problem while simultaneously simplifying their system’s operation. I had several, semi-comedic scripts I unconsciously deployed to teach the concept of the universal remote to those who had no idea such a thing existed. I have to admit, although I was awarded no garland or parade I sometimes left the customer’s home feeling somewhat heroic.

I couldn’t appreciate the extent at the time, but I knew that the fledgling Internet and computer technologies were on a collision course with traditional consumer electronics manufacturers. It would result in a war for the American home’s primary display device. But one device would emerge from the coming decade’s primordial technology overlap, the relatively inexpensive, cloud-programmable universal remote control system, Harmony. 

Harmony Enters a Competitive Market

Easy-ZapperHarmony’s origin story begins in a Canadian city beside Toronto called Mississauga, Ontario. This is where the first Harmony remote was developed by a company called Easy Zapper Inc in 2001. The first-ever Harmony remote promised to take ease-of-use to the next level while underselling its nearest competitors. Its hook was easy, activity-based programming through the company's website. This works by letting users associate one button with activities such as "Watch Cable TV" or "Watch a DVD". Once programmed, a single button would trigger the chain of IR codes required for your home theater system to perform the activity. The early Harmony even provided downloadable local TV listings through its monochrome LCD display.

As we've seen with Wozniak's CORE, programming universal remote control macros from a computer connected via serial port weren't firsts in 2001, this would all become standard operation by the late 90s. Harmony's online walk-through instruction were uniquely user-friendly, but it borrowed elements from others that had come before. A universal remote known for its activity-based commands was already out in the wild, the result of an early Harman/Microsoft collaboration. Harman's Take Control was a programmable universal remote released in 1998 and it bore more than a few distinct similarities to Harmony. Both employed a monochrome LCD touch-screen and scroll-wheel for navigation. Take Control was a first for its activity-based operation that was programmed via PC. The remotes are so similar in fact, that it makes me wonder if the brand name Easy Zapper Inc chose for its remote (Harmony) was also inspired by Harman, as its overall design and user-interface cues almost certainly were. Take Control was sold under the Harman/Kardon brand for $350. However, the biggest player in the universal remote control game at the time was Philips. By 2001 Philips had already set the standard for computer-programmable universal remotes with its Pronto line which sold for a hefty $399 with an optional $80 charging station. Easy Zapper would gain traction and the attention of Logitech for its modestly priced $200 Harmony remote.

You can see a G4 Tech TV Harmony review that aired March of 2002. The review features an online gaffe for Easy Zapper's public relations as the Harmony website goes down during a live demo at about the 2:39 mark. But the hosts do a professional job of seamlessly transitioning away from the technical problems without missing a beat.

Acquired by Logitech

Take Control HarmanLikely because the name, “Easy Zapper” sounds like a brand insomniac stoners might learn about on a late-night TV infomercial, the business name was changed to Intrigue Technologies. The name change lent some measure of dignity to its sale to Swiss/American technology company, Logitech. In 2004 Logitech bought Intrigue for $29-million just as Logitech itself was on track to becoming the inescapable PC mouse-and-keyboard brand we all know today. Under Logitech’s stewardship Harmony would evolve and bring innovations to a lineup that maintained price-points in the affordable middle-market while earning an organic love-affair that few brands ever achieve.

By the 2010s when nearly everyone had a smartphone, Harmony Link (2011) brought controls to smartphones and tablets. Link was eventually replaced by Harmony Home Hub (2014) that expanded compatibility with Bluetooth, IP, voice and smart home controls. The final, truly experimental efforts from Harmony was its Express remote (2019). This was a short-lived $250 voice-controlled smart remote that worked with Alexa, it was discontinued in 2020. Even if voice recognition technology was sufficiently advanced so as not to require us to yell at our devices, it seems like a novelty that eventually wears thin. But my personal beef with voice technology in the home is with what’s on the other side of voice-activated devices that are always listening. They're attached to algorithms belonging to giant marketing enterprises that automatically add your family’s every utterance to profiles intended to serve digital advertising. It's a novelty with a dark side.

Logitech says Express was designed to further simplify operation beyond its touch-screen interface with voice commands. But Harmony Express was pulled from the market with its cloud interface taken offline in 2020. Logitech demonstrated good customer service by offering refunds or a product exchange for its Harmony Elite package at no additional cost before taking Express cloud components offline for good. Express was a nice try, but it's my opinion that voice-controlled electronics is probably best kept where it might actually be needed, behind the wheel.

Shrinking Universal Remote Market

Maybe it’s because of its deep experience in PC peripherals, wireless remote keyboards and other communication devicesLogitech's Harmony got the universal remote right! Despite misgivings some may have with its interface and quirks, since 2004 the company with just the right core competencies elevated and evolved the humble universal remote control to heights that perhaps it had no business reaching in the first place. By 2020 the universal remote control as a category appeared to be going the way of the subcompact car, still used, but declining in relevance.

Harmony has long been a mere sprig of parsley at the edge of a veritable buffet of markets for Logitech.

Just Google any variant of the phrase: Best "universal remotes". Nearly any article in the search results are likely to recommend not just one but often a few different Harmony models. While Harmony’s success cannot be understated, there had been clues that Logitech would depart with Harmony someday. Dark clouds over Harmony go back as far as 2013 when Logitech's CEO stated in an interview that he planned to sell the universal remote brand.

Despite its dominance in the universal remote market, Harmony was only a small portion of Logitech’s business. The company’s CEO, Bracken Darryl told Verge in 2019 that Harmony only accounted for 6% of Logitech's rapidly growing wireless keyboard business, just a year and a half ago worth $139-million. That's not 6% of Logitech's total business, but 6% of one portion of its business, and not even its largest portion. According to its last quarterly earnings report for fiscal Q3 ‘21, Logitech’s wireless keyboard business has swelled to $218-million, which means Harmony’s 6% contribution has almost certainly shrunk since that interview. Logitech’s wireless keyboard category itself is only half the size of its Gaming category with $436-million in the same quarter. The truth is that Harmony has long been a mere sprig of parsley at the edge of a veritable buffet of markets for Logitech.

Logitech Financials Q3 FY 2020

Logitech Sales (in millions) Fiscal Q3 '21

As Logitech ends manufacture of Harmony, the brand, IP and patents are still held by the company. So, it’s theoretically possible a buyer could come along someday, even if it’s doubtful that investors are looking at universal remotes as a hot growth opportunity in consumer electronics. But Logitech has evolved Harmony well beyond the remote control handset, so maybe there is room for further growth or integration with other systems. The motivation for a potential Harmony buyer could involve bringing its technology and brand into a system with a vision for future evolution. They say you can't buy love. Given the organic love for Harmony expressed in many dedicated communities online, perhaps brand-love can still be purchased from Logitech.

Continued Support - But for How Long?

From the April 9th announcement on Logitech’s blog:

“While Harmony remotes are and continue to be available through various retailers, moving forward Logitech will no longer manufacture Harmony remotes… We expect no impact to our customers by this announcement. We plan to support our Harmony community and new Harmony customers, which includes access to our software and apps to set up and manage your remotes. We also plan to continue to update the platform and add devices to our Harmony database. Customer and warranty support will continue to be offered.”

Logitech's answer to our key question:

"How long will you keep the service and support going really? Our goal is to keep service running as long as customers are using it."

Over three months after the April 9th announcement, Harmony products can still be found online. For those who already own a Harmony or are still interested in one despite the risk of losing support, this could be your last chance. Current users that love their Harmony may want to stock up for the future. But if you’re considering jumping in for the first time you already know it's a risk. At the time of writing BestBuy.com still has them available online, but the bad news is you’ll pay a little extra. BestBuy's Harmony Elite system, that includes the Harmony Hub and a remote handset, seemed to be on perma-sale last year with discounts of $50 to $80-off. But you won’t find that sale price anymore.

BestBuy 2020 Sale Price $80-Off

Last Year's BestBuy.com Sale Price

Sale Price Gone May 2021

BestBuy.com Sale Price is Gone May 2021

But how long will Logitech maintain critical cloud components that stave off the day our Harmony remotes become another tired Walking Dead spinoff?

Thus far, Logitech offers no absolute timeline. A case could be made that customers purchased the product with expectations that it has access to its online tools for a reasonable product lifespan. To avoid civil or class action lawsuits Logitech may want to keep its Harmony cloud components available past any interpretation of a reasonable expectation. But that’s not necessarily the reason Logitech will do the right thing by keeping MyHarmony.com alive long into the future. The company has a solid reputation with keeping legacy products cloud-support online, Harmony Link and Express notwithstanding.

Harmony Link and Squeezebox

Harmony Link users were outraged in late 2017 when Logitech announced that it would deactivate all services for product because it was moving to a new product called Home Hub. The knife was set to be plunged into the back of Harmony Link adopters just one day after the Ides of March 2018. That was the day Logitech ended cloud support turning Harmony Links everywhere into puck shaped bricks—and the backlash was fierce! So numerous was talk of class action lawsuit that rumor has it, Logitech banned the term class action lawsuit from its own forums.

Recognizing the loss of face for Logitech, the head of Harmony at the time, Rory Dooley said:

“It was an honest mistake, mea culpa. We’re going to do right by our customers, and do the right thing.”

In the end, Harmony shipped a new Harmony Home Hub to anyone who owned a Harmony Link at no extra cost. But Link was an extraordinary circumstance. A date was set for the Link to go offline and be replaced by a new product, Harmony Hub. According to Logitech, the motive for setting a hard shutdown date was because a technology certificate license was set to expire that Harmony had no intention of renewing. Instead Logitech wanted to focus resources on its new Hub platform. In this case, Harmony flawlessly executed the classic three-step process for a brand reputation crisis: Admit the mistake, apologize and then overcompensate the customer.

Squeezebox

SqueezeboxMy personal experience with an old cloud-reliant Logitech product was its media streamer, Squeezebox. I fell in love with the original Squeezebox back in the early ‘aughts, when it was created by Slim Devices. Logitech acquired Slim Devices in 2006 when my own unit was already years old. Logitech continued support of the original Slim Devices model long after releasing subsequent, improved versions.

Squeezebox was a Godsend in the early digital streaming-era. In the days when Keanu Reeves was still known to moviegoers as Neo or Ted, Squeezebox could play-back my locally stored music collection, Internet radio and a young innovative streaming music service called Pandora. This was the era when digital music streaming was a mess of restrictive licenses, DRM and brand ecosystem's walled gardens.

Long after the original Squeezebox had been replaced, I was still getting firmware updates for compatibility to more radio stations and music apps. I finally abandoned Squeezebox in the 2010s. But years after the line had been completely discontinued in 2012, the Squeezebox cloud component was still alive and well. Today, you can still go to MySqueezebox.com and see Logitech hosting everything you need to use Squeezebox. Opening MySqueezebox.com is a virtual journey into a bygone era, it’s like visiting a fully functional digital Smithsonian museum.

Facing a Post-Harmony World

Harmony Home HubIt’s my contention that Harmony will remain operative long into the future. But what comes next? For remotes, there are other options of course. We did an article back in 2019 on all-in-one remotes for the SmartHome that includes a few options for controlling your audio system. If I were creating this article today, alongside options like Caavo Control Center, I’d also add SofaBaton and Qorvo. Specialized universal remotes will likely remain an underserved niche market for some time.

The decline of the universal remote was certainly the result of multiple currents in audio/video. The growth of streaming video, smart TV and cord cutting have all led to a reduction of source-side devices in need of controlling. The era of the set-top-box is winding down. New features employing HDMI’s two-way communications like CEC, ARC/eARC make for simpler AV system wiring and can let users control the two most important functions, on/off and volume, from one remote. On the low-end, this will be enough control for the average AV user that's satisfied with a Smart TV and a soundbar. Of course, the upper-end is also well-served with full-function Smarthome automation systems with available professional installation. Sadly, it's us folks in that middle-market, the ones that aren't looking for SmartHome automation, but still using optical discs and component audio systems that are in the uncatered-to minority. Logitech has decided that the universal remote market is just too niche to continue and it's a surprising if not heartbreaking conclusion coming from the one company that actually nailed it. Harmony had found that illusive sweet spot between ease-of-setup, reliability, deep device database and all at a relatively low-cost.

Having grown up with remotes many of us can reliably date our personal history by which remote control was in our lives at any given time. The programmable universal remote is a tragic tale of a rise-and-fall, not unlike some ancient civilization that had its day. It is tragic because the one that came closest to perfecting the technology might have been too perfect for our imperfect world.

 

About the author:
author portrait

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

View full profile

Confused about what AV Gear to buy or how to set it up? Join our Exclusive Audioholics E-Book Membership Program!

Recent Forum Posts:

thatguyallday posts on September 09, 2021 12:45
FYI SevenHugs is shutting down, so the Qorvo is a no-go.
cornemuse posts on September 03, 2021 13:25
First, I have a simple flip-phone. I need remotes!
I tried & did not like so called universal remotes, never could find one that covered all my *inputs*.
My cable box remote starts TV which starts stereo. <both sony> Cable box is set to use its own volume settings, not stereo's.
All inputs' remotes have their own volume controls. computer, DVD player, (2) media players, cable box.
Set the stereo volume HIGH, (shy of distortion).
Cable box starts TV & amp, set it aside, (use for watching TV, otherwise set aside)
Amp remote selects input, set aside.
Use other selected input (various) remotes as intended. Keep it close, this is what I use till changing inputs.
None of my remotes have very many buttons, unlike universals I have tried. Waaay too many buttons!


Works for me, , ,
-c-
highfigh posts on August 31, 2021 07:43
panteragstk, post: 1501825, member: 61217
So, fair to say that this is not a good start. Too bad, remote is nice and simple.

I'm going to mess around with a tablet remote to see what I can get it to do. One interface would be great, but I'll need to see what all is involved in something like that.

I've used macros to launch remote apps for whatever I'm using on the TV, but that was years ago.

To be fair to them, I sent a couple of e-mails and they called quickly, but I wasn't able to answer- they sent an e-mail to say that someone would call again- that's far better response than I have received from companies that are well-established.

From a physical perspective, the rubber button mat is very similar to the one on the Harmony Companion and the button for scrolling through the devices seems similar to a remote I have seen in the past, but I'm trying to remember which company sold it- maybe an old model from RTi. There aren't many companies making OEM remotes- Celodon and URC are the main ones and those companies make them to order, to a degree.

Any time multiple devices are used and need to be adjusted for an ‘activity’, a macro is needed unless CEC actually works. For a TV and one device, it can be fine, but when the system is elaborate, macros are absolutely necessary and they need to work or the end user is gonna see how much hang time or distance they can get when they throw the remote.
panteragstk posts on August 30, 2021 10:32
highfigh, post: 1501622, member: 36433
SO far, adding devices is easy, but it showed that the codes for one piece were available in after choosing ‘Haven’t bought it' and they aren't when I was in the programming stage. It doesn't control my Roku at all, even after teaching it a few codes and trying those, so I'm waiting for another e-mail (the first told me that the emitter needs to be uncovered and the remote needs line of sight. Gee, why didn't I think of that?

Macro setup seems to be ‘button by button’- if that's how they want to do this, Sofabaton will never take off and I hope they have a way that I didn't see. Instructions are very sparse- the YouTube videos are mainly very weak.

So, fair to say that this is not a good start. Too bad, remote is nice and simple.

I'm going to mess around with a tablet remote to see what I can get it to do. One interface would be great, but I'll need to see what all is involved in something like that.

I've used macros to launch remote apps for whatever I'm using on the TV, but that was years ago.
highfigh posts on August 29, 2021 09:34
SO far, adding devices is easy, but it showed that the codes for one piece were available in after choosing ‘Haven’t bought it' and they aren't when I was in the programming stage. It doesn't control my Roku at all, even after teaching it a few codes and trying those, so I'm waiting for another e-mail (the first told me that the emitter needs to be uncovered and the remote needs line of sight. Gee, why didn't I think of that?

Macro setup seems to be ‘button by button’- if that's how they want to do this, Sofabaton will never take off and I hope they have a way that I didn't see. Instructions are very sparse- the YouTube videos are mainly very weak.
Post Reply