The $160 Lesson: Apps Beat Devices

We have Mac Minis connected to all the TVs in our home. I've been using a RF-based keyboard/mouse combo device for several years and not loving it. So one of my new years' resolutions was to find a better approach for our family. Last week, I went out and bought an Apple Wireless Keyboard (bluetooth) and a Gyration Air Mouse (RF). I figured I'd try to fix our main family room setup first and then roll out the solution to the rest of the house.

I had them shipped to my office and was taking them home on Friday. I showed the Gyration Air Mouse which is super cool looking to Andrew and he casually said "I like the Mobile Air Mouse app on the iPhone". I filed that away and went home with my hardware excited about what I had purchased.

I got the Apple Wireless Keyboard to pair with my mac mini and it works well. But like many bluetooth devices, I had some weird pairing issues on reboot and other times and it wasn't as reliable as it needs to be in our family room. And I completely failed on the Gyration Air Mouse. I could not get it to work on my Mac Mini or on my Mac laptop either (I tried that just to see if there was something awry with the Mac Mini). I am not sure if the Gyration Air Mouse issue is operator error (me) or something wrong with the one I bought. Who cares at the end of the day? I could not get it to work.

So in frustration, I pulled out the iPod touch we use as a Sonos and Boxee remote in our family room and downloaded the Mobile Air Mouse app from the iTunes store for $1.99. You have to download free "server software" for the device from the Mobile Air Mouse website as well.

Guess what? Andrew was right. It works very well. And you get a trackpad and a keyboard (iPhone style keyboard) all for $1.99.

The Apple keyboard was roughly $80 and the Gyration Air Mouse was about the same. $160 down the drain. The $2 solution was better.

Of course, for this to work you'll need to have a $200 iTouch handy. But honestly, I could have spent $200 on the iTouch and added $2 for the Air Mouse and it would not have been much more than what I spent on the keyboard and mouse.

Bottom line for me: apps beat devices. Lesson learned. Relatively cheaply.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Jonathan

    With the right hardware, software can do almost anything

    1. fredwilson


    2. ShanaC

      No it is not the software. Both are tools: The software makes the hardware work. And a person makes the software and the hardware work. At the end of the day, we are the ones interpreting the world around us, including any interface that we encounter: That includes software and hardware.We insert souls in machines, not they in us…

      1. Jonathan

        that’s a considerably deeper thought than I was remotely implying. My point is that software offers considerable flexibility and can evolve beyond the core value a piece of hardware initially represented.

        1. ShanaC

          I thought what you said was deeper than perhaps you implied. David Gelertner bring up both of your points as similar ideas in his book, and it never sat perfectly well with me. Hardware as just a platform, but that hardware should be elegant. And then software should be even more so, because it drives the hardware, and it hence can make the hardware evolve to be more than its base components. But the concept bothers me: At the end of the day, we’re the designers and the readers of such objects: aren’t we determining the elegance? Which sort of determines the value. As soon as the elegance is there, it becomes a wanted objected.I mean, we all know it when we see it, and we all know it is very valuable- otherwise it wouldn’t be driving us so crazy.

  2. Rik Wuts

    Good way to illustrate a very interesting point. In a broader sense, I think software is much more important to the overall user experience than many think. Look at all the harddisk recorders (or mobile phones still) with horrible usability. The whole ‘app ecosystem’ idea is bound to go beyond mobile devices and pcs eventually.

  3. Peter Cetinski

    Just imagine that same app on the iSlate? 🙂

    1. fredwilson

      Might be too big for the family room

  4. Guest

    Dammit Fred, now you’re making me spend more money on apps (calculated since summer 08 I’ve spent over $400 in app store). Any other favourites while you’re here?

    1. fredwilson

      Boxee and sonos

      1. Guest

        Got Boxee installed on my AppleTV but I noticed it chokes on almost everything. Need to get a mini at some point, probably when I get a new TV.Then again, the Boxee box is only going to be $200…

        1. fredwilson

          boxee’s alpha really struggles on the apple tv platform. it will be interesting to see if the beta does better.

  5. Imran Ali

    Hey Fred – I’m curious about your Mac mini and TV setup. I’ve just purchased a used mini plugged into a Sony Bravia TV using the Mac’s Front Row and iTunes to serve up movies and photos… I’m curious how others are personalising their media PCs and software at home, do you have any prior posts on this area?

    1. fredwilson

      Well I liked boxee so much I invested in it

      1. Jonathan

        are you planning on replacing your Mac Mini rig with a Boxee Box?

        1. fredwilson

          no because i think running boxee on a cheap PC is better than running on a dedicated device. that said, i think the dedicated device may have more appeal to a mainstream user base

          1. Jonathan

            cool – thanks. Been considering some future updates to my home config

          2. Joe Siewert

            I’m a big fan of taking old PCs and using them with TVs as I upgrade my main workstation. Great way to repurpose an old machine and get more use out of it.

      2. Imran Ali

        LOL of course :)Do you use Boxee exclusively on all the minis or a combination of apps/hardware for different contexts?

        1. fredwilson

          boxee and safari and a little itunes are my apps of choice in the familyroom and living room

  6. Chris Swan

    I wonder how long before a version comes along that works with the Wii (where installing ‘server software’ might be a bit of an issue)?I’m guessing such a move would need the iPod/iPhone to show up as a proper BlueTooth keyboard and mouse (which probably involves some stack tweaking that isn’t allowed from user space apps).

  7. atimoshenko

    I would have to strongly disagree with the conclusion about what lesson the story teaches. This is not about software being superior to hardware. If the devices originally bought ‘just worked’ while the app and software was a pain to set up, the conclusion would have been the opposite, yet this did not happen only by chance. Rather, I would argue that the lesson is this:people will almost always prefer something that is merely good enough, but ‘just works’ over something that is powerful and specialized, but buggy, or overcomplicated, or unintuitive.In some instances this is not the case. Every now and again a product comes along whose first iteration is buggy and has a steep learning curve, but it is so revolutionary that we still forgive it. In these instances the product can also be just good enough, but it is just good enough for a need that we did not previously know we had.As an addendum: when specialized solutions (hardware or software) fail the simplicity test, it is usually because they ask you to learn a new interface or do not play very well together, or require you to carry/find a bunch of separate things. On the other hand, when multifunction solutions fail the simplicity test, it is usually because their multi-functionality forces them to become bloated, and unwieldily, and inefficient. Just wait until iPhone apps start getting 3rd party extensions and those extensions start getting pages of preferences and scripts to customize them…So in the tech field we continually oscillate between all-singing, all-dancing platforms and people getting tired with all the above and wiping the slate clean and offering something focused, which then becomes popular, and gets extended to do other things, and becomes bloated all over again.

    1. Chris Pollara

      Not sure your logic is inline if you reverse the finding – net net is one solution costs a fraction of the other. Even if the hardware was equal in performance, you’re still competing against virtual goods in an open market where you can expect continuous innovation.

      1. atimoshenko

        Again, I would have to disagree. To take the last point (continuos innovation) first:From my own use, I like to be on the bleeding edge only of things that I am passionate about. For these functions, I consider myself to be advanced enough of a user to understand the new features introduced into any tool, and to use them. Sometimes even in these circumstances a tool can become spoilt by feature creep (developers feel pressured to offer new stuff), but this is a separate point. Usually, I look forward and appreciate the innovation. On the flipside, there are tools (more of them than in the first category) of which I am just a casual user. To return to some tool after a break and find the whole thing redone for the sake of innovation is in no way advantageous to me personally, especially if I just want to do the same old stuff. I feel that developers of a tool, usually being advanced users of it, tend to greatly overestimate how much the general market expects continuous innovation. From this perspective, hardware has an advantage over software, and classic software has an advantage over the cloud – it is easier for people to opt out of innovation that is useless to their goals. This harks back to my earlier point – ‘good enough’ is just fine with most people most of the time.Second, price. Suppose that you want some task accomplished on a regular basis, and are willing to pay up to $X for a tool to accomplish that task for you. Suppose then you have two product choices. Both products accomplish the task equally well. Product A costs next to nothing, while product B costs close to $X. On the other hand, product A requires you to jump through a few ill-thought out hoops each time, while product B just works. I would argue that many people would choose product B. This is why Apple is successful, despite (excessively) premium pricing. It is not just the price difference between the two solutions to consider, but how much you are actually willing to pay for a given problem to be solved.

    2. Mark Essel

      Great comment, what we’re seeing is a working vs non-working solution. The driving question of consumers: Does product or service X do precisely what I need, with the least cost of my time/money?

    3. fredwilson

      but what if both worked equally well? the $2 solution is still the better one

  8. im2b_dl

    lots of different software and hardware it sounds you have going. sounds …not simple. but software with standards and interoperability may change that. a central software with extensions … with the right hardware …a central hub both in hardware and software. as you know imo … on the software side that is going to end up being a browser. on the hardware side the hub is either going to be the evolved cable box or a new creation…a piece of hardware / central new hub for the gate coming in to your home. a secure “foyer” if you will and all coming in will be escorted by the browser. again imho

    1. fredwilson

      i agree. it’s not a trivial setup. we’ll need that for all this to go mainstream

      1. Elie Seidman

        will be cool once this is all done wirelessly. the TV accepts is connected via ethernet to the LAN (with Internet access) and your iPod touch or Nexus (mobile computer) has the app is connect to the LAN via WiFi. Then the Boxee app runs on the mobile computer – which is also your remote, of course – and tells the TV what to grab from the Internet (the entire Boxee service running in the cloud). We are probably a good many years away from that though and in the interim, having a device that is really easy to connect to the TV on one side and the Internet on the other – but still controlled by an iPod Touch remote – is a great start.

  9. RichardF

    I also think that this highlights that, particularly with technology, where there’s an expensive way to do something, there’s often a much cheaper alternative that will do the same, if not better job. You just have to look for it.

  10. James Gross

    Yes, the real reason for apps. Not to make better web pages.

  11. ryan singer

    Agreed apps are best!! We also have mac minis installed on our TVs and use the apps on the iPhone and it works great!!! A iPod touch would have been a good option. PS I’m loving my nexus one

  12. Peter Clark

    My harmony remote sits unused as I use Boxee app on my iPhone.

  13. Ezra Fischer

    Agreed — I’ve never quite understood the “app as a way around the crappiness of a mobile browser” idea. Soon mobile browsers will be good enough and that model will disappear.

  14. Sachin Kamdar

    Exact same conclusion I made when comparing Zeo and WakeMate to the iphone app Sleep Cycle. The iphone already has the hardware, all you need is the software. I’ve tried it for the past couple of weeks and it seems to work fairly well. Again, all this for $1.99 compared to $249 and $99

  15. Mark Essel

    The true finding is that Fred can get us to buy either software or hardware depending on how much he loves/invests in it.Software is certainly more flexibile, so adaption is stronger for devices which are controlled by mutable software.

  16. awaldstein

    I’ll always choose the software solution if possible as software revs and grows with you; hardware gets old and obsolete and ends up in recycling.

    1. fredwilson


    2. Carl Rahn Griffith

      I wonder if we should remind Apple of that admirable philosophy? ;-)Tangentially, Simon Armitage on gadgets and ‘stuff’ …

      1. awaldstein

        Carl, really funny.The real reason I’m an Apple fan is for the little hyped Time Machine backup system. The fact that I will never have to rebuild my databases and files again is oh so freeing to me.Great article on gadgets. Thnx for sharing. I’d add the iPhone to the top of the list of change agent gadgets for me.

  17. remlap42

    I don’t have the habit of leaving my iPhone around the entertainment centre for all to use. So for my Mac Mini, I bought the Apple Wireless Keyboard (which works great) and, after trying a variety of wireless pointing devices, came to the conclusion that the best product I could find is from a small company in Maryland called “Hillcrest Labs” — who sells a thing called a “wireless loop pointer” for around $100:…. With that said, like all remotes in my house….this one has the same habit of disappearing when I need it the most. That’s when I dig out the $2 iPhone App :)regards,JBP

    1. fredwilson

      i agree with your point about the iphone. that’s why our itouch is great. it’s a remote for our family room and that’s all it does

  18. ErikSchwartz

    I have a gyration air mouse. But I got it from for about $20. I like it for presentations and public speaking because I don’t have to look at it.I’ll certainly check out Mobile Air Mouse app.

  19. andyswan

    I want devices that work. I want apps that work.But mostly, I want devices and apps that work together. Hardware platforms and software solutions.

    1. David Semeria

      You mean they fit together as easily as Lego? Funny, I know someone with a similar vision….

  20. Tereza

    As a mom and non-engineer, I’m trying to picture it operationally in my house. We’re re-thinking our whole TV setup, and I’m eager to jump into new things that work.I love iTouch. So do my kids (age 3 and 6). They routinely hijack my iPhone to play apps like iPuppy and Dress Up. Sometimes they steal it. Once I couldn’t find my iPhone for 2 days and then found it in the toy kitchen microwave. Another time it was buried in the Dora backpack, along with a Webkinz and a spoon. Just for fun, try grabbing it from the 3-yr-old when she’s deep in DressUp. Tantrum City.If anyone here has suggestions on how to keep this elegant device from walking off the scene, i’m all ears (a tether? an alarm? a Clapper?). It feels to me like the dedicated keyboard would stay closer to the TV. I can’t afford two $200 devices (1 for remote, 1 for games). And I need my phone back.The joys of parenting are many and varied…

    1. fredwilson

      that’s a real issue. it could easily happen in our house too.

    2. jaymeydad

      I am totally with you on this. This type of setup won’t survive in a family with young kids.

    3. Joe Siewert

      I have a couple old PCs hooked up to TVs and have found a plain wireless mouse can accomplish a lot of the basics just fine (if you need to type stuff though it falls short). Since mice are pretty cheap this might be a good compromise for your situation.

      1. Tereza

        hey thanks — that’s worth a shot.

  21. Jen

    I have friends who have entertainment set-ups that include cable company-issued DVR, TiVo, gaming consoles, Blue-ray DVD players and more. Toggling from device to device and accessing the content they want, when they want it, is cumbersome. And forget about the subscriptions for each of the services associated with the device.Last year, I bought a $10 HDMI cable (order it online–you’ll save yourself $60), connected it to my media laptop and cancelled my cable TV subscription. I happened to work at one of the major TV networks at the time. Unthinkable.Using Hulu and Netflix as my primary gateways to movie and TV content, I haven’t looked back since. In fact, I think I took a leap forward and embarked upon an effort to build a custom media center. Much easier than one might imagine. It has…Windows XP and the full office suite. Web browsers. Dual core processor. 1 TB of storage. 6 gigs of RAM. A $100 Adesso wireless qwerty keyboard with integrated trackball and remote functions. Blue-ray DVD player. 5 USB ports. Media reader slots that can read over 20 types of cards. Motherboard with surround sound. HDMI out. The grand cost was $1200. Steep, but well worth the investment.I can now toggle between browsing web content, the Hulu app, Netflix streaming and the standard computer programs with a click. I was anxiously awaiting the release of Boxee for Windows (and somewhat sad to hear they’ve pursued the set-top box route). Open platforms, cloud computing, interoperability–These oft-used (and abused) buzz terms are having a real impact on my behavior as a media consumer.The whole media value chain needs to change from the content producers through to delivery platforms to monetization models. And perhaps a re-thinking of what the “consumer value” proposition truly is.Great read on this very subject:

    1. fredwilson

      you can get boxee for windows now

      1. Jen

        Already kicking the tires on it!

        1. Joe Siewert

          Ditto, really impressed so far.

  22. GlennKelman

    You just saved me from making the same mistake Fred. Thank you, thank you!

    1. fredwilson

      i do have a wireless keyboard and gyration mouse if you’d like 🙂

  23. Dan Delphin

    When I first read this I was inclined to just flat out disagree. In general, I feel that hardware that is designed well would beat the pants off software just because every aspect of the device would be built to perform whatever function it was meant to serve. These aspects would include everything from the physical design to the built in “software” of the device. This is much like the Mac when compared to the PC… less bugs, fewer viruses, prettier design, and to many a better computing experience because the software and hardware are meant to work together (and this is coming from a hardcore PC person). The PC tries to accomplish the same thing as the Mac but in software instead and results in more problems.The benefit to software however is that it can be changed as new ideas are discovered about how to better do the purpose of the software. These changes can be quick and inexpensive as long as the underlying hardware is robust enough to support it. This means that software is more forgiving when it comes to getting the product right… you don’t have to get it right the first time (as you would with hardware).Therefore, over the short term a hardware device has the potential to be better (as long as you get it perfect the first time). Over the longer term however, software is the best choice.

  24. Paul Marshall

    Apps beat devices……ASSUMING you already have the right device for the app

  25. Jason L. Baptiste

    This is why heavily capable smart phones like Android and the iPhone (or iTouch) are so important – they’re the “Tabula Rasa of Hardware”. They replace the need for a large group of stand alone devices- navigation, remotes for HTPCs, video cameras, and a ton more. Creating a new hardware device is normally an in-depth project that takes a ton of funding and time. Not anymore. The iPhone makes that possible for two guys with a lot of redbull in a weekend.

  26. Ryan Brohman

    I have two htpc’s in my house hooked up to TV’s.One is Windows7 Media Center based and I use the Gyration Remote (combines air mouse and standard MCE remote –… with great success.The other is Ubuntu box with XBMC. I use a regular MCE remote and have a Logitech DiNovo Edge (Keyboard with track pad –… nearby in case I need a keyboard/mouse. XBMC is designed so well though that the mouse/keyboard is rarely required.Total cost of devices was around $200. But I prefer this to dedicating iPod Touches to the task. I guess if you’ve got spares though…

  27. ShanaC

    This doesn’t seem to be about what is cheapest (although price is a factor in this).It seems to really be about what is the best setup considering the design limitations of the objects and spaces you inhabit, and the people you are with. Clearly for Teresa, this setup would not work (she needs something a little more heavy duty, I don’t think an IPod Touch is going to survive 🙂 )I’m also wondering with the proliferation of apps, at what point will having the mouse integrated become a level of complexity that is annoying, when will it be hidden away by too many other apps that one needs to deal with- although have a spare pile of extra input is also annoying for a lot of people as well.Also, in this case there seems to be a functionality problem- in many cases, as many people point out, a pure hardware setup of a mouse often is better (not always). what kinds of tradeoffs are you willing to make under which circumstances -clearly, have an external hardware input, even if it is more difficult might be better where you need to set up for extra sensitivity. (note This is from someone who cannot current afford a Wacom board, so buys mice based on sensitivity -I actually read the packaging- is it necessary, no)Just some thoughts to throw out there. I don’t think your solution is the end all be all. I think it works for you and probably a grand median of people as long as they own IPhones or Ipod touches and have this sort of setup (and many will), and have kids above a certain age…But don’t say, try to run performance art off the damn thing..

  28. skysurfer172

    I’m still using a wireless mouse and keyboard on my Mac Mini/TV/Boxee setup, but I have an iTouch that I am planning to use as a remote. Do I need the Boxee app and the Mobile Air Mouse app? Or will the air mouse handle all needs? Thanks for the info!

    1. fredwilson

      air mouse recognizes you are using the boxee app and adjusts to itno need for the boxee app if you are using air mouse

  29. Dave Z

    How do you have the Minis connected to your TV. Rethinking my own setup (as I do on a weekly basis. 🙂 )

    1. Joe Siewert

      Just depends on the type of TV you have, but I think you should be able to hook a Mini to the TV via HDMI, S-video, composite, DVI or VGA. See the second post at this link:

  30. Aviah Laor

    simple beats complex

  31. Elie Seidman

    I love my iPod Touch as the remote for my (incredibly unstable) Apple TV

  32. Siminoff

    It was pretty clear at CES this week from talking to people and seeing what is coming out next that you are 100% correct that apps will replace all of the controllers.If I had more time I would make a little wifi enabled device that also would have RF and IR capabilities. It would be something small enough that it would go unnoticed on a table. You could also build it into a digital picture frame or something else to hide the guts. That way app developers could truly build apps that act as all in one remotes.

  33. Aviah Laor

    remote control apps – the new frontier in dealing with content and information loads

  34. Dan T

    Suddenly I don’t feel so bad for spending $200+ dollars for my Sonos controller instead of just using the FREE app on any one of the three iTouch’s that my kids own.

  35. Adam

    This is a sad state of affairs. Ironic that Microsoft probably hastened it by not fully embracing Bluetooth, thus ensuring these hardware issues.

  36. Andrew

    I have used a Gyration mouse with my living room Mac Mini/TV setup for almost a year and have had no troubles. I recommend it to all my friends. Maybe you just got a defective device because all I had to do was plug it in, hold down the “connect” button for a few seconds, and voila!

  37. dcorts

    Fred,I agree 100% about apps beating devices. I use an app for the itouch called rowmote. The interface looks like an apple remote and can control Hulu Desktop, Boxee, Frontrow, Itunes, etc. Works perfectly with MacMini I have hooked up to my TV.

  38. Guest

    Fred,Try rowmote app on the itouch. Interface looks like the apple remote and can control boxee, frontrow, hulu desktop, ect. Works great with the MacMini I have hooked up to my TV.

  39. kenberger

    There is no way I’d agree w/ the blanket statement “apps beat devices”. Boxee is a good example: the iphone app is great, and RF-based, but can’t compare to the robustness of my PC IR remote.More importantly, when a device really kicks ass, it’s unstoppable. Good example you might check out is the Logitech MX Air Rechargeable Cordless Air Mouse

  40. Peter Yared

    thx for this, i have a macbook plugged into our living room tv instead of a mini, mainly because of previous disasters a few years ago trying to get wireless keyboards to work well with a shuttle.

  41. @blainomd

    fun comment. but for the future buyer beware. everything goes to this same conclusion. look first to app store for just about everything. The platform is here to stay and will merge with other platforms. tablet anyone!

  42. sachmo

    I find a few things interesting about this post.1) You seem to know the distinction between RF and bluetooth hardware. Have you found them to be any different in performance? Btw, what was wrong with the first RF keyboard/mouse set you had? Just curious…2) Checked out the gyration air mouse. Seems like a system requirement is Windows (only right mouse button works on Mac, not sure how useful that would be) though Amazon probably didn’t make this clear:…3) Finally, the most interesting thing about this post is the hardware inside the air mouse AND the iPhone / iTouch. MEMS based gyroscopes / accelerometers. The chips are a means of sensing the environment around the device purely through inertia, using no external cameras or Infrared emitter / detector schemes.Whoever gets the right combination of software and hardware with these chips will have a vast market to explore.

    1. fredwilson

      i think RF is vastly superior to bluetooth which is often flaky

  43. patrickpetrossians

    Well, it’s interesting that you had a different experience that mine. When I bought my Ipod Touch I decided to go for one of these mouse/presentation tools App . However, the limitations became quite obvious and I finally went for a hardware device:-I think that most of the models need a wifi network: my experience is that in most situations when I had to give a presentation in big auditoriums, an open network was not accessible. Hardware devices work independently with a RF connection. You just need to plug an USB receptor.-Sometimes you are not allowed to use you own computer. With hardware devices, you just connect the USB receptor to any computer and, (most of the time!) it works.-Using virtual buttons on a flat screen in the midst of a stressful lecture is not so easy! Th hardware device let you use more intuitively the left/right buttons. You can put it in your pocket, get it back and find the buttons without looking at it, even without thinking.Usually I spend a significant number of days preparing a 15-30 mn presentation. Th cost of my hardware device (Kensington) is nothing compared to the effort i have to go through for the big day.This is a more general concept. I went for an iPod touch and not for an iPhone because:I prefer my Garmin GPS, which is sturdy, water resistant has a long battery life and uses standard AA batteries. I can’t see myself hiking or trekking for a few days, in bad weather conditions with an iPhone.I prefer to use a small camera with 9M pixels, Leitz optic zoom, small flash, and spare batteries and SD cards than an iPhone’s integrated camera.Note that there are a lot of things I use my Touch for that many users would prefer a dedicated tool instead.I think it all goes down to how intensively you use your tools. A Swiss army pocket knife excellent, but I always take a big camping knife with me when I prepare my gear.Patrick