New and Improved Longtime readers of this column know that I have periodically pleaded with the industry to improve the user interfaces we supply to our customers. The two primary areas of my “wish list” are program guides and remote controls. We have yet to make major strides on the program guide problem. They are still not user friendly in many cases, and with the advent of more and more video on demand, the challenges only increase. There was some hope that a combination of guide and remote would help improve the situation, with experiments such as voice-activated remotes linked to “intelligent” guides. I played with the prototypes of those devices, and thought they were great. Unfortunately, they were also apparently too pricey for general rollout. Too bad. They were neat. Another trend I have long encouraged is the “smart” remote. One that can be taught to control everything. We’ve come a long way on that front. My favorite so far, and the one I still use every day, is the Universal Remote MX700. To tell you how “old” it is in the scheme of fast-moving technology, I have to keep around an older laptop to program it since the connecting cord has a serial (as opposed to the newer USB) interface! I know the new “Harmony” brand remotes made by Logitech follow the same custom programming path, but instead of downloading a program to your computer, the Harmonys, as I understand it, (they were described in a review recently) are directly linked with an Internet site that allows all sorts of customization. That’s what we need. Each customer has a different set-up at home, each experiences frustration when one device turns on while another turns off and the volume is not controlled by the right box. It’s confusing, but like it or not, the cable industry is the only local “television” provider that has a direct relationship with the viewer every month. Hence we are the ones expected to “solve” the problems created by multiple consumer electronics devices and little if any customer support from any of the other companies. Have you ever heard of a CSR at your local broadcast station? Enough said. So how do we provide the customer experience our customers want, expect, and will reward with loyalty? Surely it is worth the effort. In the “smart remote” area, things are looking up, but they are also still too expensive. We should offer them and support them, but as a special add-on only. Electronic program guides are still not up to snuff (although one of our competitors, Verizon, is claiming it has a significant improvement, and an initial look suggests they are certainly moving in the right direction). What else do we have to make sure works for our customers? Home networking. That’s another area I intend to keep focusing on, since it is going to be critical to the overall customer experience. One new improvement has just come out: Universal Electronics has taken a product I wrote about several years ago—a remote extender that fits any existing remote control by simply replacing one of the batteries with a specialized, powered, RF transmitter—and made it a whole lot better. It works like a charm. I can use the remote in the kitchen to control the set top box up in the bedroom and feed just the picture to the kitchen set. That’s what folks want to be able to do, and Universal Electronics has come out with something truly “new and improved”. We need more of that.