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Clik: The future of remotes, in an alternate reality

A new consumer electronics remote control technology gives smartphone users the fastest possible way to pair their smartphone with a media device.

Rafe Needleman
Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
5 min read
Clik makes smart TVs dumb
Watch this: Clik makes smart TVs dumb

I have seen the future of the remote control.

Actually, I've seen several futures of the remote control, from the ultimate expression of the traditional infrared remote (the Logitech Harmony products), to strong "second screen" apps (like Dijit) that use a smartphone's smarts and interface to build a better guide or remote, to the latest iPhone apps that you can download for nearly every new home entertainment product (most are awful).

One company, though, has gone off in a different direction: Clik. I think it has a new, powerful idea and a platform technology to go with it. There are several issues with it, but the high-level thinking is really interesting.

Clik is simple to use: You direct your media-playing device, say a TV or computer, to the Web address www.clickthis.com, which initially displays a unique QR code. Then you point your smartphone's camera, while running the Clik app, at that QR code. This quickly pairs the mobile device to the media playing product. Now you can use the app on your mobile to control what the browser is displaying on the media player.

That's the simple version, which the proof-of-concept demo, available today for iOS or Android, illustrates. With the app, you can put any YouTube video on a browser that's showing the Clik page, and control playback options.

With Clik, other users can "scan in" to take control of a screen one user is already managing. Clik

It's not hard to imagine Clik offering a much more robust catalog of content: Hulu, Netflix or Amazon streams. Or videos users have saved in their Dropbox accounts. Or pictures from Flickr or Facebook.

What's technologically cool about this is that you're not relying on Wi-Fi on your mobile to stream the media. The Clik app only sends media control info, and it sends it to your browser or display by way of the Clik servers. The Clik servers then blast whatever media you have selected down to the display device. Clik assumes a broadband connection on the display, but the remote smartphone app works over any data connection. You can experience how this works more quickly than you can read it. Setup is wicked fast.

I tried the product on a few computers as well as on a Boxee Box I have connected to my television at home, since the Boxee has a browser app. It worked flawlessly. My TV itself, however, while it has a browser, does not support Flash, which Clik currently requires, so that's a strike against it.

And while cool, the current demo app is slightly irrelevant. YouTube? Who cares? Furthermore, if you really want to display a YouTube video, you go to YouTube.com or a YouTube app.

There's more here
What's exciting to me about Clik is what's beyond the demo. It's a fundamental technology, and a new way to think about remote control of entertainment devices. Clik could be used for games; it's easy to attach multiple smartphones to one game experience that unfurls on a shared TV. Clik also lets a new user quickly take control of a media device if he or she is in the room (in the demo app, you can see this: you press a button to have the display pop up another QR code so a new user can "scan in" to take control of the screen). For shared displays (conference rooms, lecture halls), it's also a powerful idea.

Clik beats any competing technology for connecting, or pairing, a remote with a device. And since it appears that we're moving to using our smartphones or tablets as remotes, this represents a big opportunity.

Clik is also able to put the content selection function and the "smarts" of smart TV into the cloud. A big part of the technology is its focus on speed and responsiveness. Using the YouTube demo, you can control playback and volume with barely perceptible lag, even when you're using cellular instead of Wi-Fi on your phone. There's no reason to use a plasticky, button-strewn remote designed by eight-fingered aliens if you can replace it with a content-aware, Web-connected, personal smart device that's always with you. People are watching TVs with smartphones in hand anyway; this technology closes the loop. (If you don't want to use a smartphone for a remote, a cheap Android tablet could also do the job.)

However, I'm not so keen on the business, due to some major challenges and competitors.

Other companies (like Flingo) are building platform technologies to meld the mobile screen with the TV experience. I believe I may already have Flingo remote technology in my new LG TV, in fact, as one of the set's three redundant user interfaces. Which indicates one of the big problems for the electronics companies: they really don't get interfaces. Give them something great like Clik, and I bet they'd screw it up.

The cool little Tubemote app (review) also allows a pretty quick way to push video plays to any browser from a smartphone. It's been around awhile and is actually a very good app for anyone who has a large screen in their entertainment system that can run a browser. Clik has a much faster setup, but Tubemote currently does more.

And then there's Airplay. If you've got an Apple TV box and an iPhone or iPad, you're already golden. You can push content--video, music, pictures--to your big screen from your mobile device or from your network. It's pretty slick.

Based on what I've seen so far, Clik is not about to become a direct consumer product, although CEO Ted Livingston (also of Kik) as well as one of his VCs, Fred Wilson, told me that the goal here is in fact to build a consumer company. Livingston plans to target the college market first: every student has a computer, and for lazily controlling the MacBook on the desk while you're sprawled on the couch, this is a very workable solution. Doesn't seem like a fundamental product, but it's a nice thing.

Clik could be more important, a more open platform than its competitors: a real contender in the electronics and apps industry, if only the electronics companies would embrace it. Which is a bad bet. The content-pushing service will also need to do deals with the companies running the content-streaming services, which is another maze to navigate. On the one hand you have companies eager to put the streaming content everywhere (like Netflix), but with content that's already everywhere, how can you sell the consumer yet another way to access it, even if it's free? And on the other, you have products that people want, but that are so tightly controlled due to license restrictions that they're unlikely to show up on something like Clik at all. Hulu, for one.

Clik could make things somewhat easier for consumers, and for the college students when they go home, by making its own cheap set-top box, running just a browser that the Clik app controls. But then it'd be selling against the $50 Roku LT that everybody seems to love, not to mention Apple TV, and again Boxee.

Somewhere in that maze of electronics companies, over-lawyered rights owners, and confused consumers, there's a nice hunk of cheese. I really like what Clik is doing, but I'm not sure Clik will find that cheese.