50 million users strong, Peel's smart remote looks to stay ahead of the TV game

By James Robinson , written on March 13, 2014

From The News Desk

I always lose my TV remote. I’m rarely ever a few steps away from my phone. With the inevitable forces of convergence in technology and the power we now have to control our lives from of our smartphones, the union of the two makes a lot of sense.

Peel would certainly agree - two and a half years after it first put it in the app store, the Mountain View-based startup’s smart TV remote registered its 50 millionth activation last week. The remote works with “98 percent of all consumer electronics,” founder Bala Krishnan says, including 3,500 brands of TV and 600 set top boxes. It allows users to browse for content on the remote first and gradually adapts to viewing preferences to make recommendations.

When the idea first struck Krishnan and his co-founders in 2010, their first prototype made a simple mistake, something that has resonance in 2014 for every entrepreneur looking to give old world things new connectivity.

“We looked at what we’d made and something hit us,” Krishnan says. “All we’d done is reproduced the user experience of the remote on a touchscreen. What we had to learn just by using it, is that we had the power to completely transpose what it was. We could position the buttons wherever we wanted. We could create entirely new interfaces.”

Krishnan realized that he and his team had set out to make an innovative remote but had not taken advantage of any of the possibilities to innovate in a meaningful way.

The remote is not a clever device. In half a century, it hasn’t gone too far past its original vision, serving a purpose that could be likened to a very long stick to help you change the channel while still in your chair. Krishnan says that breaking that simple, longstanding relationship down, they saw it had two key components. Someone with a remote in their hand wants control of the TV and they want to get to content. The product became interesting to them when they saw that using the smartphone, control and content could be combined into the same source.

“That was really the beginning,” Krishnan says. “The whole experience fell into place around that.”

I downloaded Peel after speaking with Krishnan. It’s not as relevant for someone that doesn’t have a cable TV package, like myself, but I listed my zip code and the type of TV I have, and then I repeated the process to register my set-top box. In a few minutes, three devices in my living room - phone, TV remote, Roku remote - had been condensed down into one. Alongside that remote functionality, I could see everything that was on regular TV. Peel even took the liberty of making some recommendations for me. Our relationship was a few minutes old, so I forgave it for thinking I was a "Frasier"-guy. Theoretically, if I’d had cable and wanted to watch anything, I’d press the option on my phone and the TV would go straight there. I can’t say it was a power that I’d been crying out for, but the app worked well.

For Peel, it has been an easily scaleable enterprise. It has relationships with electronic programming guides in 110 countries. It built up to 25 million users in two years and added the second 25 in the past six months. Building in social functionality and teaching it to learn a user’s viewing patterns was simple. “Once you log enough activity from someone, it is not hard to imitate how they will make those choices,” Krishnan says. He boasts to having 100 percent market share, but he’s not counting similar offerings from Dish and Comcast because they only work within their own company ecosystems.

Despite a promising start, the company’s long term security will be tested in the market. The broadest challenge being that while not pointless, Peel is inherently less interesting for cable- cutters, which pits it against the long, slow shift away from terrestrial programming. As a free product it puts itself in the same boat as every other social network in having to introduce ads to try and monetize. Krishnan says that the company has started to make this shift slowly, swearing as all social media people do, that they will monetize slowly as to not devalue the user experience. But the smart TV space is about to get crowded by larger players who won’t need to sell ads to keep up. Amazon, Google and Apple are all expected before the end of the year to bring out products the end of 2014 that vastly up their game in trying to take control of the TV screen as an entertainment centerpiece and redfine how we consume content.

Not to discount Peel though. It has a simple interface, does what it says on the box and was a few years ahead of everyone else in coming on board. But as the market heats up and it comes up against tech players with much larger war chests, it is going to find out soon for better or worse if this head start is big enough.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]