How to Tell If Your Electronics Are Needlessly Complicated: The Mom Test

Home-theater equipment is in need of a serious makeover. Photograph by John Slater

This is a rant, of the grumpy-old-man variety.

Two weeks ago I was staying at my parents’ apartment because my home in New Jersey was without power, thanks to Hurricane Sandy.

“Oh, Sonny, I’m glad you’re here,” my mother told me when I arrived. “I need you to help me set up the DVD player.”

I love my mom to bits and pieces, but sometimes it’s like a bad sitcom with her: The tech writer son tries to help his mother (who still refers to the refrigerator as the “icebox,” by the way) do something he thinks is the easiest thing in the world but to her is akin to landing the Mars Rover.

We went into her bedroom. She had a television that was connected to a cable box and a DVD player—simple. Even the universal remote that came with her cable box was already programmed to work with the TV and DVD player. Miracle of miracles.

“See, Mom, you’re going to want to change inputs when you switch from cable to DVD,” I said.

“Change inputs?” she replied. “Can’t I just have it set to channel 3?”

This is what I’m talking about: My mother has that Reagan-era notion that you can set a channel of the TV to be an auxiliary input, like I used to do when I wanted to fire up the VHS and watch The Last Starfighter. Again.

“No, Mom. It’s really simple. Let me show you.” This is where things fell apart. But not because of my mom. “OK,” I began, “you’re going to use the cable box remote. Remember to push ‘DVD’ at the top of the remote to send commands to the DVD. You’ll then have to push ‘STB’ when you want to go back to cable, but to change the TV’s input, push ‘TV.’”

The cable box remote did have a “video source” button on it. And pushing it did call up the TV’s video source menu. And pushing “video source” repeatedly did allow one to cycle through the available sources. I reached “DVD,” selected it, and then looked for the “exit” button to close out the source menu.

Except my remote didn’t have an “exit” button. Or, it did, but it wasn’t mapped to the TV’s exit function. So the TV’s source menu just sat there—on top of my mother’s DVD of The Thin Man playing underneath.

“OK, Mom, looks like this remote can’t access all the functions on your TV, so we’re going to get the TV’s original remote,” I said. Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew this wasn’t going to work.

“Seriously?” my mother asked. “Lemme get this straight: If I want to watch the goddamn Thin Man on the DVD, I have to first get the TV remote, find the source menu, switch to ‘DVD,’ then go back to the cable remote, select ‘DVD,’ press ‘play,’ but don’t forget to switch the remote back to ‘STB’ when I want to control the cable box? Something like that?”

“Um. Yeah, Mom.”

“What the hell happened to channel 3?”

Here’s the thing about my technophobic mother: She’s absolutely right. The tiny hoops we are asked to jump through give lie to the idea that technology is going to make our lives easier. In some cases it does (I never get lost in my car anymore, thanks to GPS; I’m never bored anymore, thanks to my smartphone), but there are glaring omissions.

TV manufacturers, can you please get it together? Can there be some common standards so my TV knows when I’ve put a disc in the DVD player, and it can ask me if I’d like to watch it now? Can remotes and devices talk to each other automatically, with full functionality, without the need to program them? Can someone please let me access any and all on-demand, streaming, or downloaded video without having to switch from my set-top box to Netflix or iTunes? Can I have a TV setup that I don’t have to explain how to use to house guests and babysitters? (“… sometimes the sound bar will turn itself off because it gets confused by a signal from the remote to the TV. Just use this remote to …”)

Face it, TV people: Your products are commodities. No one cares about your hardware. One display is virtually indistinguishable from another. But if one of you actually made it easier to use your product? Let me tell you something—it wouldn’t just be 65-year-old Jewish women on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who would be interested. We’d all line up for that.

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