Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Logitech Discontinues Its Harmony Universal Remote Control Line

Ben Patterson, TechHive:

Well, the other shoe finally dropped. After years of speculation about the fate of its Harmony line of universal remotes, Logitech has announced that it will stop making the devices effective immediately.

In a post on its support site, Logitech said that its remaining stock of Harmony remotes will continue to be available through retail channels until stocks run out, and that it will continue to support the remote for the foreseeable future.

If you have older A/V equipment, this is probably frustrating. Harmony, acquired by Logitech in 2004, dominated the market on universal remote controls for years, and also provides home automation stuff. Its more recent models require a server-side infrastructure, not just IR programming, so when Logitech decides to shut that system down, those remotes will likely stop working. According to Jason Knott at CEPro, support will be offered “in perpetuity”, but I doubt that. I give it a few years.

So, this is certainly a difficult situation for those who own Logitech’s Harmony hardware and have relied upon it for years. But Matt Stoller has a bad take on it that I would also like to address:

Logitech’s products are pretty, but the actual quality of the software is terrible, which is the classic sign of a marketing-driven organization run by lazy executives. Logitech is a monopolist in the universal remote control space, which it acquired in 2004 when it purchased a firm called Harmony. “Their market dominance has been ironclad because of their database: they have infrared codes for hundreds of thousands of devices, from brand-name TVs to random HDMI doodads on page fourteen of Amazon. For obvious reasons, they haven’t open-sourced this database.”

I say ‘was’ because Logitech is actually killing the entire product line now. Their CEO says it is because of competition from streaming, but that’s nonsense, they’ve wanted to get rid of the product line since 2013. As my source says, “if Harmony were its own company, I highly doubt they’d decide to shut down due to abject hopelessness.” Now the database will probably be destroyed, and people will have to redesign their systems to no longer include a universal remote. There’s also a security issue. :Since much of the Harmony software is cloud-based, countless systems may become inoperable, or impossible to update as new devices (e.g. the PS5) aren’t added to the database, or else vulnerable to hacking as security issues go unpatched.”

The punctuation in this excerpt is unclear, so I am unsure whether the “database being destroyed” claim is Stoller’s or his source’s. I think the colon in front of “since” was supposed to be an opening quotation mark. Nevertheless, the impression Stoller leaves is that this is the end of universal remote controls generally because Logitech is closing down its monopoly — and that is simply false on several levels.

To be fair, I am not a universal remotes expert by any means. I do have a couple of salient counterpoints that, I feel, undercut Stoller’s dramatic reading.

For one, there are many other companies that maintain databases of IR remote control codes, not just Logitech, so those codes are not disappearing off the face of the planet just because Harmony is going away. Some of those databases are also open to the public, like this one on GitHub. There are also some other universal options that, like those from Logitech, have those codes in a database and do not require individual programming — Logitech’s Harmony line seems to be the default pick among buyers’ guides, but Joanna Stern’s choice was the Ray Super Remote and TechHive likes a Caavo model. Most importantly, the universal control problem is slowly fading as HDMI CEC becomes more widely used and different remotes can be used with different equipment.

I do not have some sort of wild home theatre setup so a universal remote has never felt justified to me. The market does seem to have been dominated by Logitech’s products, but it is unclear why that is the case. It is not as though there are no other companies that produce universal remotes that work with audio-visual products from a bunch of different manufacturers, as well as smart home gadgets and streaming boxes. But while Logitech has firmly dominated the market for fifteen years and its absence will surely leave a void, that does not make Stoller’s take any more accurate.

Update: I have heard from a few people about their terrible experiences with CEC, and I feel compelled to half-correct half-clarify my remarks above. The correction is that CEC is not itself a driving force for why universal remotes are becoming less relevant. Smart TVs are a far bigger influence on that market.

For clarity, I also want to separate what CEC promises from what it is currently delivering. CEC seems to be a minefield of problems right now, and it is unclear that it will get better. But it does not seem inherently problematic by design. Its implementation is, from what I have read, all over the place, which makes it unreliable and kind of a crapshoot. So, in theory, CEC is a fine standard that, for many people, should eliminate the need for a Harmony remote; in practice so far, it is a small nightmare.