In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month will look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new to appreciate how we interact with them on a physical, tactile level.
It is a bizarre fact of technology that very good products will often have bad things associated with them due to the constraints of money and branding. Think obnoxious carrier logos and bloatware on smartphones, processor company stickers ruining the aesthetics of your sleek laptop, and of course, the omnipresent Netflix button on your TV’s remote.
It’s not just Netflix, of course, but a variety of services that are willing to shell out cash for prominent placement on your remote. Amazon Prime, Hulu, Sling TV, ESPN+, Vudu, YouTube, Pandora, Crackle, Rdio, HBO Now, and more all dot the remotes of TVs and set-top boxes. (Some of those services don’t even exist anymore!) But Netflix — both due to the fact that it was one of the first to do it back in 2011, and the ubiquity of its logo on remotes — remains most closely associated with the phenomenon.
There are TVs that cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars, top-quality sets from major manufacturers, that come stuck with these billboards on their remotes. Why? Presumably because it pays well. According to Bloomberg, as of last year, Roku was charging $1 per customer for each button, in what adds up to “millions of dollars” of monthly fees that it can charge services like Netflix and Hulu.
It’s a strange form of advertising, almost the opposite ethos of Amazon’s now defunct Dash buttons. Instead of a branded hardware button you’ve specifically chosen to get more of your favorite products in front of you, they’re hardware buttons that users have no choice in. Streaming buttons (for lack of a better term) cannot be changed or remapped beyond their intended purpose, only do one thing, take up useful space on your product, and solely exist to sell you on streaming services you might not even have. Or, at best, convince you to open up a streaming service you do.
Of course, there’s a simple explanation for it: it gets TV manufacturers money, and it gets streamers more subscribers and more watch time. Much like carrier bloatware or Intel Inside stickers, companies wouldn’t do these things if they weren’t profitable for manufacturers and beneficial to the brands paying for them.
But the Netflix button stands out to me in particular because it’s not just a bad piece of software that you have to delete or a sticker to peel off. It’s a physical part of your device — a piece of interactive advertising that you can’t disable or remove. Every time you turn on your TV, you are being reminded of whether you pay for Netflix. If you don’t, pressing the Netflix button will bring you to an otherwise worthless screen that tells you to subscribe.
Physical buttons like this highlight the worst kinds of hardware buttons — like the original Bixby button on Samsung’s phones, which only worked with Samsung’s maligned smart assistant whether users liked it or not (they did not), rather than giving software choices for the unchangeable hardware. In this case, they’re paywalled hardware, buttons that don’t perform any function at all except to ask you to pay for something.
Of course, there is the flip side of this, which is that if you do subscribe to a service and enjoy using it, a Netflix button can be uniquely helpful. For all its flaws, when you press it, it does exactly what it promises: launches you straight to Netflix, almost like a better, more modern version of an on-demand button on an old cable box remote.
Much like the Bixby button, it’s easy to imagine a world where these buttons are truly great, though: where TV companies let you assign your favorite services to buttons (maybe even with stickers or fancy displays, if you’re that keen on a logo appearing). Many universal remotes offer just that sort of feature, in fact.
But in their current state, it’s hard to avoid the fact that streaming buttons are advertising for the services that pay for them, putting making money ahead of actual user experience or design.
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