With the release of Roomie Remote v3.0 and rumours of some special new hardware we took the opportunity to talk to founder Will Price about the future of his amazing App that turns your smartphone into a powerful universal remote.
It’s the coffee table remote problem. Initially, it was solved by getting a bigger and even more complicated hardbutton remote. These days, everyone has smartphones everywhere that make clicker remotes look like pocket calculators from the 80s. I
t’s like 1990s Palm OS versus the iPhone. We’re now solidly in the era when what constitutes a “remote” can no longer be done by anything other than a smartphone.
Do you think dedicated universal remotes will go the way of the Dodo as IP control, smartphones and tablets take over?
Just like infrared disappearing as a control method, it will take a long time before clickers disappear, probably a decade, but yes that’s inevitable. In the 3 years Roomie has been on the market, a primary focus from the start has been IP control and the market has moved so much since we started that it is now the headline feature for some of the biggest players – CEDIA a few weeks ago had IP control all over Sony’s booth as the top-line feature. Almost everything new these days has IP control – except Samsung TVs! Sony, Sharp, Panasonic, pretty much everyone now includes IP control by default.
The key to this question is what is the unique value of a dedicated hardbutton remote? We’re at the point now where the only unique value it could bring is a low price, and often the reverse is still the case today. There are so many things one simply cannot do from a clicker. Meanwhile, smartphones are abundant, and even a used smartphone from a couple years ago is a significantly better choice than a traditional hardbutton. In the end, this transition over the past years has always been about two-way control and replacing redundant devices (clickers) with devices that are omnipresent (smartphones or tablets) – the old hardbuttons just can’t compete on either front with the manufacturing scale of Apple, better screens, faster CPUs, better response, gestures, and the array of advantages from two way control.
Who wants to look at a 1 or 2 inch screen or often no screen at all to navigate a guide or find content to watch which is where everything is going? That whole concept is incompatible with a clicker. Then going any bigger than that they would just be a nuisance to maintain when the iPad and smartphone are already right there.
The last piece here is that some people believe in the “tactile feel” issue of a button. This was a reasonable argument awhile ago. Roomie now has such great gesture control that it is no longer valid. Gesture control is a significant improvement upon and advancement over the tactile benefit. Don’t think of generic iPhone gestures, rethink the problem of how to control home theater by gestures. That’s what Roomie introduced. Once people understand and see that, it’s like a light turns on and they can never go back. They realize there is something fundamentally better than fixed hardbuttons.
Unlike many other smart remote systems, Roomie can be completely programmed from the host iOS device. Has this been the most challenging aspects of creating Roomie?
Everything before and even after us is either a no-customization system like Harmony, or a deep programming system like Control4 where you’re hiring professionals and unlicensed people can’t touch your system. We sit right in the middle, the sweet spot. You can configure 95% of system design in Roomie, right in the app, in a brief fraction of the time that would have been required with a more complex system, and with many improvements over a no-customization system.
Earlier this year, we introduced a programming element not inside the app. If you want to go all the way and design a remote panel pixel for pixel, we now provide that and we use the world’s best user interface editor to enable that rather than trying to re-invent the wheel. We wanted to offer the flexibility for those super high end installs, but the reality is that 99% of users really appreciate the simplicity and flexibility of it all being right there in the app. No more walking downstairs carrying your remotes and hooking everything up to USB.
Yet, even with Harmony and many other systems, they still rely on this idea that you have to go back to your computer to redesign your system for even the simplest of changes. Replaced your Blu-ray Player? Better chalk up an hour or maybe a week waiting for an installer depending on your system to swap that out. With Roomie, it’s like 4 taps in seconds to do that and you didn’t get up from the couch. Maintaining and furthering the simplicity of that has always been one of Roomie’s primary goals.
Can you tell us about the interesting new hardware you are developing with Global Cache and when it will be available?
We’ve just introduced Roomie Blaster adapters that are a new rendition of the original iTach Flex products. We work very closely with Global Caché on these. One of the advantages of these new models is that there is no subscription required for infrared control. They just work out of the box with the base level Roomie app. The Power over Ethernet edition is coming very soon along with the Relay and Sensor Cable as well so that will complete the product line transition which has been going on since mid-2013. Everything is available now except those two items which we expect late this month.
We also are working on hardware that serves a different purpose. Roomie Agent, currently available for OS X, is going to be running on a very small Ethernet connected box sometime in early 2015. Some of the new features of Roomie Agent 2.0 just introduced include the ability to watch feedback triggers. You can now hit a button on your Lutron keypad, your Lutron lights turn on and your Watch TV activity turns on in Roomie.
In the context of where we’re going, we think that is example of how “hardbutton” remotes survive. They turn into fixed keypad-like controls for a room, and Roomie is integrated with them. Roomie Agent, whether on software today or hardware tomorrow, is the central brain that enables these things to talk to each other.
Roomie Remote v3.0 looks like a great new update, bringing support for Apple TV, and Nest for example. What systems are you looking at to integrate into Roomie next?
Apple TV was a huge effort and unique breakthrough for us. We’re likely to do some deeper work related to that. Because Roomie is iOS based, Apple TV is represented in a huge percentage of our installs, much more than average. We think we should do everything we can possibly do to make that a great user experience.
One reason we don’t usually pre-announce major new devices is that they do sometimes require something special. For instance we spent 28 months working on the TiVo support. It was working in March 2012, but it took until June 2014 to release it because you can’t just toss that kind of thing into the real world. Working with TiVo, we’d had to get it all approved and go through a lot of additional work. We’re hoping to add Virgin UK there in the future beyond the basic control we already provide. There are quite a few things in various stages of development. Ignoring whether these will ever be in the product via IP control, I am personally a fan of trying to get Amazon Fire TV and Playstation 4 IP control. Both have unique challenges, so we’ll see. In the case of PS4, it looks about as hard as Apple TV.
Some manufactures still seem reluctant to release official APIs for their products (Sonos for example). Have you found this attitude softening or are security concerns stoping them?
Sonos is the classic example here, but at this point it is water under the bridge because everyone has simply reverse engineered it so they have a de facto API. What Sonos does not have though is a full API. Nobody does for example Deezer streaming because every single one of those other services that Sonos pushes out is a one-off and they don’t do anything in terms of APIs to make them accessible. Roomie is way ahead on this front in that we can tune any Sonos service that we’ve seen before, but providing a real guide for each of them is something we hope Sonos at some point moves towards with a real API. With so much adoption, I suspect the tide is actually in our favor there. Even Nest eventually caved and went all the way. That was no small effort Nest put out this Summer. They could have done something with a hundredth the amount of work that everyone would have been pretty happy about. Instead, they took it seriously, thought about the security issues, and provided a solution they can build on. They’re an example to all those that come later. We’re glad we waited and did it the official way and now we’re one of the first out of the gate with that.
In general, broadly, attitudes towards opening up APIs are blooming like flowers. Everywhere we look, APIs are opening up, even the people you thought would stay locked down are coming around. There is a lot in the works here.
What’s the verdict on Apple’s HomeKit? Will Roomie be able to integrate with the Cupertino framework?
We’re fans of HomeKit the Concept. The reality is that HomeKit the Timeline turned out to be more of a 2015 thing. This is a developer feature at the moment. I think it will be at least 2015 before anybody has a noticeable set of devices that are integrated. I spent 20 years before Roomie creating encryption technologies and secure telephony, mostly PGP, and even I have never heard of some of the crypto that Apple put into HomeKit. It is a very large and heavily locked down infrastructure that will need some time to bake and the hardware partners will need time to get this put together given the very high bar required for integration on their side. We think we will be a leader on that front as it evolves. Meanwhile, we talk directly to a lot of those devices today, and look forward to any that it can add to the stable.
We hear Sanus founder Jim Wohlford has become a investor in Roomie. You must have big plans – where will you be in the next 5 years?
The sweet spot for us and the new brand we’re introducing for integrators, Simple Control, is in-between the entry level stuff like Harmony and the high-end expensive products. Roomie is focused on DIY and direct to consumer, and that will remain the case. Simple is coming to retail near you. Expanding outside the App Store, and providing integrator-specific features like remote access and management.
I turned down all investment offers for 3 straight years because I’d been on that road before and knew it was not the right time. After meeting Jim (Sanus founder) and Ken at CEDIA 2013, we spent many months discussing how the future will play out and it became clear that the time had arrived. A startup like Roomie needs to mature on its own for a while as it did. A lot of startups think the first thing you need to do is take a bunch of money. Actually, the first thing you do is build a great product that people want and fall in love with. Then you figure out exactly what additional funding would actually do to help move the product to the next level.
Will there ever be an Android or Windows Phone version of Roomie?
We are working on it now. It’s a huge effort. We hope to release something in 2015. Roomie is an app that made no sacrifice, ever, when it comes to being an iOS specific app. Every chance we could, we took the iOS path which is one reason why Roomie feels like such a well-behaved, nuanced, and beautiful iOS app where a lot of work goes into user interface design. Porting to Android is not just a matter of converting some code. You need to rethink the elements for a different environment to capture the same level of attention to detail while also trying to share the brains of the product – way too often we see apps that essentially have diverged into 2 separate products on iOS and Android. We’re looking forward to it.
We are not working on Windows Phone at present. When Android is further along, we’ll be in a better position to consider another platform.
Thanks for taking to the time to talk to us Will, where can people find and follow Roomie?
Hope to see everyone at roomieremote.com. We’ve just updated all our demo and tutorial videos for 3.0. Thanks so much for the time!