Picture this: it's 1985, year of the mega-success movie "Back to the Future". Only recently have you purchased your very first VCR, settling on the best quality format: Beta (quality always wins out, right?). Since your television doesn't include a built-in cable converter, you've had to rent one from your cable company - a unit that comes complete with a monolithic remote.
One day when juggling remotes, trying to get everything in sync to play back a rented tape, your mind suddenly resolves into the crystal clear realization that your trendy coffee table has developed a serious case of "remote clutter": three ungainly controls are duking it out for space with your collection of books and magazines! And what about that snazzy new CD player you've been eying? Yet another remote to contend with! What to do?
Picking your way through the September 1985 issue of Popular Mechanics, on page 12 you come across what could very well be the ultimate solution. It's a new product from GE that can "operate virtually any infrared-controlled component from any manufacturer by learning and memorizing its signals" and promises "unity of command over four devices". Sounds perfect!
Fast-forwarding to the future, one might think that GE's 1985 remote control must have been pretty crude, especially considering the fancy ones now available. But remember, it cost $150 at the time - that's $250 today - so you just may be surprised!
Mad scientists have home theaters too...
Back when GE had a research and development department whose task it was to invent nifty cutting-edge thingies (rather than being a catch-all generic brand name, as it is now), that division was busy creating fascinating products left, right and center. Pulling ahead of the original remote control inventor, Zenith, GE may well claim the title of being the inventors of the whole universal remote control category. (The Cloud Nine "CORE" remote control, created by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and frequently considered to be the first fully programmable remote, was more advanced than the GE with macros and timer capabilities, but did not actually ship until 1986. The CORE can still be bought today as Celadon's PIC-200.)
So what exactly is a universal remote? In the general sense I would classify it as "a remote capable of replicating a wide variety of infrared protocols and commands". But I'd also call a true universal "a remote capable of replicating infrared commands as yet unknown". What that means is a true universal remote purchased today will be able to control the next popular electronic trend of the future, something that didn't exist at the time of the remote's manufacture. Put in easier terminology, you could call this "future proofing", something oft promised but rarely delivered.
This boils down to a single solution: learning technology. Current remotes are available in three flavors: preprogrammed, learning, and a combination of the two. Some preprogrammed remotes can have their built-in databases upgraded to include new products as they are released, but the upgrade generally cannot be done by the end user. And even if a code database can be updated, is there any guarantee that an upgrade will be available in a timely manner or that it will include every function for your specific model? For almost all situations, "no".