If you haven't tried AppleTV with the new Remote application for iPhone (and iPod touch) stop what you're doing and go check it out. The combination is revolutionary. Which gets me to thinking...
AppleTV was OK but not great until the Remote app came out. Now it's flat-out awesome.
The AppleTV is a great core component—it plays music, video, and photos over HDMI to my home theater system, and includes WiFi for downloading new content. But the included remote control is weak—it's too small and not very responsive. Luckily, the AppleTV 2.1 software enables WiFi control.
The iPhone, aside from being an iPod, a phone, and an Internet device, is a frickin' awesome remote. It has a big, beautiful, 3D-accelerated touch screen and built-in WiFi. And, importantly, I almost always have mine in my pocket. It's the perfect complement to the headless AppleTV. (Sure, you can wade through the on-TV menus, but if you have more than a dozen or so videos, you're going to wish you hadn't.)
A friend of mine asked me a while ago about developing an iPhone app to control his Kaleidascape system (essentially a hard drive-based movie and music for really rich people) and the rest of his home-automation gear. But why stop there? There are innumerable systems around my house with horrific interfaces: heating and air conditioning, lawn sprinkler system, security system, not to mention every device that already has its own junky remote. Why not control them all with the device I already carry with me? But I digress.
Even if you wanted to stick with only A/V equipment like TV's, DVD players, DVR's, cable set-top boxes, and receivers, the iPhone, along with a WiFi-enabled IR emitter, could in one fell swoop disrupt the entire Universal Remote business.
The iPhone's threat to RIM's BlackBerry business is making headlines these days. But Logitech's $123M universal remote business, which the company expects to be its fastest-growing retail category in 2009, could make an even easier (albeit smaller) target.
The solution would require not only a custom iPhone app but also some hardware that could talk to hundreds of different manufacturer's devices. It's the kind of messy problem that Apple usually stays away from. Sounds like an excellent idea for a startup.
Update: It's happening. Cool!