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From The Editor's Desk: Throw away your smart home, dummy

Nest Yale lock and Nest Hello doorbell
Nest Yale lock and Nest Hello doorbell (Image credit: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

The last few years were a blur. Met a girl, got married, got a dog, bought a house, had a kid. You know, big life stuff.

And during that time, while all the important stuff was happening, I saw the rise of, and participated in, the ascent of all the technology trends we take for granted today. Mobile, of course, and the sea change in behavior the smartphone has wrought, but I'd argue the proliferation of the smart home will have more of an impact on many people's lives over the next decade. That's because, while we understand the smartphone to be a consumable of sorts — longer-living ones, mind you, but still of finite utility — smart home tech hasn't been evaluated with the same yardstick.

And yet more and more of what we bring into our homes has a shelf life, and not in the typical way that a light bulb burns out or a gasket inevitably wears to nothing. We've grown used to those household inconveniences and learned how to deal with them, but this new generation involves computers and wireless standards and the inconvenient truth of planned obsolescence.

Companies that put computers in products that are expected to last forever need to contend with the inevitable customer backlash when they become obsolete.

I bring this up in the context of Sonos, whose earnest and naive machinations to keep whole its ecosystem by cutting off support to some its oldest equipment unleashed a hellstorm of bad press and worse customer reactions, is likely the first in a series of announcements that smart home customers will have to deal with over the next few years. Sonos is a victim of its own success; that it has spent nearly 15 years supporting some products has given its customers, many of whom have invested thousands of dollars into its platform, a false sense of security.

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Smart home collection

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

But the passage of time requires companies like Sonos to negotiate with the rest of the industry: the company relies on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth standards, on off-the-shelf SoCs and wireless chips, on ever-evolving streaming APIs, and on partnerships that can quickly sour.

Sonos decided to stop supporting some of its aging products so it could incent customers to upgrade to new ones — yes, because it's now a public company that makes money from hardware and it needs a steady stream of revenue from both new and existing customers to grow, but also because in order to continue adding features to its more modern products it has to draw a line in the sand. The hardware in products released in 2005, or 2009, or even 2014, is considerably slower, and uses different standards, than those released in the last five years. That's true of phones and laptops and cars and televisions, but within each of those categories there's a different longevity expectation. Basically, people expect their stereo equipment to last forever because, until companies like Sonos started bundling computers with amps and tweeters and woofers, that was largely the case.

The people most virulently opposed to Sonos's recent end-of-life decision are those who also own Pioneer receivers and Technics vinyl players from the 80's, the ones that take for granted that if a product's purpose is to facilitate or generate an audio signal, it shouldn't have a shelf life.

What's going to happen when smart home companies run out of the money, or incentive, to justify keeping smart home products updated and free of exploits?

To its credit, Sonos has reiterated over and over again that it's not bricking or obsoleting any of its products, and that it will continue to support the first-gen Connect and Connect:Amp, the original Play:5 and Bridge, and a couple other niche products, indefinitely, but that these products can no longer live on the same wireless network as its newer products if they're to receive the upgrades that Sonos users expect. I think that's a reasonable stance given its track record to date, one that's considerably better than most companies in the space.

But the backlash felt inevitable and also justified. Lots of people spent a lot of money on stereo equipment that, for all intents and purposes, was marketed as a smarter version of the same thing they'd always enjoyed. Sonos likely knew that the computers in its products would eventually get too old to support, but forwent those warnings because they would happen in a very different future.

To me, this story isn't really about Sonos itself, but of the impending smart home and IoT reckoning that's going to present itself in a few years. What happens when Nest decides that my Thermostat E (opens in new tab) is too old to keep sending fixes to and some hacker finds an unpatched exploit in it that ends in disaster? What about the millions of smart lights, plugs, and other automation tools from companies that didn't find lucrative exits and instead faded into nothing?

The hope is that these companies designed their products conscientiously, with the ability to be offloaded from the cloud, to operate as regular lights, plugs, doorbells, locks, garage openers, smoke detectors, and whatever other menial tasks IoT products have replaced throughout the home.

That's my hope. I fear, though, the opposite will happen.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

16 Comments
  • My receiver is a Yamaha, not a pioneer, so there.
  • This is an issue with all technology. Auto tech presumes that you replace, and backwards compatibility is only a problem at the level of which fuel to use. Gas/electric/hybrid/diesel cars all function very much the same. If someday joysticks replace steering wheels, it is the human who will be backwards compatible with steering wheels, not the car. I couldn't drive a Model T today, but I could learn to. Computers OTOH, are supposed to work the same way and do the same things, regardless of what is in the box. Backwards compatibility means that all the interfaces (primarily other computers) don't have to change. The hardware/software interface layer can make any physical hardware look the same to the software requesting input or output, but that means that new hardware capability goes unused. Or, even at the same time you wind up with two, or however many, different ways the software has to interact with hardware, depending on what the capabilities are. At some point, most of the new capability is being used to emulate the old capability instead of actually providing new benefits. Even buying new every year carries a load of old baggage needed to support prior versions. We are being trained to be a throwaway society. It is cheaper to replace than to repair. That was true when the transistor was a separate component on a motherboard, instead of being embedded in a chip with a billion others. If you are the type of person who wants your stuff to work for decades and leave it to your children, don't try to do it with technology. They probably won't know what to do with 8 inch floppys, much less punched tape or cards.
  • I already got burned by tcp connected with then discontinued their smart builbs. Could not even use them as regular bulbs since they were blinking all the time wanting to be set up. Had to replace several hundred dollars worth of bulbs. since then, I tried to use more than one brand when possible to keep the costs down if another company decides they don't care about their customers. Unfortunately, you cannot do that with thermostats, smoke detectors, door bells and more, the expensive smart home devices. I got my smart thermostat back in 2012 and keep waiting for that email saying it will no longer be supported.
  • "To its credit, Sonos has reiterated over and over again that it's not bricking or obsoleting any of its products" is a mischaracterization. Their initial communication to their customers was not clear, and they seemed to indicate that the older products would no longer work. They have since clarified the process and made changes to how they will be handling legacy equipment. That was a result of the backlash, which was in my opinion, justified.
  • What? I don't expect anything to last forever. I don't have any of the stereo equipment I owned in the 80's. What would I even do with it? First of all, it was enormous. Second, what would I do with a 5 CD tray-style player/changer, AM/FM radio with only RCA connections? My speakers were also unnecessarily huge. None of these things were timeless either in their tech, or their aesthetic. Upgrading comes with ANY product, not even just technology. People who are upset with SONOS are being ridiculous. Nothing lasts forever. Expecting something like those speakers to do so is absurd. It's not like they won't work anymore, either. They just won't be top of the line after 10-15 years, and that's completely normal no matter what's being discussed.
  • Actually I disagree with the radio equipment. I still have the sterio I did in the 90s and it is still the envy of most people I know. A 200 disc changer, CD burner and ripper, 4 10s (Upset me and Ill put them next to the walls and blow your windows out. Which may or may not have been done before already due to a barking dog ) on top of the rest of the surround system. As for AM/FM well anyone that uses streaming over that option is an idiot. They are paying for something that is free. So while alot of tech does need to be upgraded some of it doesnt. Just like records making a come back yet again.
  • "As for AM/FM well anyone that uses streaming over that option is an idiot. They are paying for something that is free." Am I? Perhaps the radio stations where you live play the music you want to hear, exactly when you want to hear it, but the ones near me, for the most part, do not. Radio also tends to have commercials and DJs whom one must listen to between songs. Not to mention the fact that the radio is only near me when I'm in my car, as even my home rig doesn't have a tuner... because why? Everything I stream at home is at LEAST CD quality. Not something that can be said of broadcast FM. Just saying, you may not think streaming music is your cup of tea, which is fine, but choosing it over radio doesn't make me an idiot. 200 disk changer? Man, I have over 200 MUSICIANS represented in my music server, much less albums, and I can browse them (with cover art) on my phone, from the comfort of my sofa. That's just the stuff I own. I pay less than $20/month for a family plan from Google that gives me unlimited streaming of Google music, and commercial-free YouTube. Hell, the commercial free YouTube is worth that price, all on its own.
  • They still make CDs?
  • Ok boomer. Look at the badass hipster we have here!!!
  • Age... it's the new racism!
  • Here's my smart home...it's called a light switch. Give me LPs too, this internet music crap is all garbage.
  • This internet music "crap" has *slightly* worse sound quality that is hardly noticeable to the majority of people. Having one monthly fee covering more songs than you could possibly listen to in that month. Removing the hassle of having to pop in a disc or tape.
  • "Works with Nest" was just scrapped by Google. Good luck getting third party applications to run smoothly with google assistant now.
  • There is a difference between appliances that are expected to last forever, like refrigerators, dishwashers, and such and ones that typically last a shorter time. I bought my home in 2007, and I'm still running on virtually all the same appliances that came with the house. They all work fine, and I plan on running them until we either move or they don't work anymore. All of them are on the expensive side, meaning, I'll have to layout a good bit of money to replace them. With IoT and other smart home devices, the tech inside them often will become obsolete before the item itself does. This may no be a big deal on a device that costs only $100-200, but when it comes to the fridge, which can easily cost $1000 for a decent, middle of the road model, it pits the need to replace obsolete tech before the device's useful life is over. So we need to be able to either shut off the smart part of the device, or be able to upgrade it somehow. Of course, shutting it off ends up putting us back with a dumb device, which we easily could have bought for a lot less money back in the day. I haven't shopped for appliances in ages, so I don't know how much of a choice smart appliances are vs dumb ones. I know Samsung had upgrade modules for certain TVs, that allowed upgrades to the core tech of the TV - like the processor, software and connectivity. It couldn't turn an 1080p TV into a 4k due to the screen limitation, but it could provide better picture quality and processing, along with newer, more secure software. Those modules only cost $200-300 IIRC, and could be a good compromise and provide a source of revenue for appliance makers. At least for me, I don't like having everything tied to the Internet and will likely continue to prefer dumber appliances. I see the upside of the smarter devices too - they just have to get hardware, support, and device life hashed out. If a device is only expected to have a 10 year life, for example, say that up front, price it accordingly, and say what will happen when the support is over. The more informed the consumer is, the more likely they are to accept a new system of doing things.
  • Because of this, electronics need to be made with recycleability, renewability, and better upgradability in mind. And disposing of old electronics and batteries is a pain in the behind. There is room for improvement here, as well.
  • A turntable does not need updates or connectivity to do its job, so yeah; they would be fine.
    My speakers are DDAC's (Direct Drive Active Cabinets) and can push 2,816 watts RMS with zero distortion, so I'm not looking to replace them anytime soon ;)
    My washer is an LG, and although it's cool getting notifications when a load of clothes is done or I need to run a "tub clean" cycle, I don't need those thing to push the start button and wash clothes when the features go offline. It won't talk to my Whirlpool dryer though :(
    My second car is half a century old, and will always be a blast to drive with it's balanced and blueprinted air cooled engine built by a retired racing mechanic. Ironically, you can still get parts for it.... unlike my wife's modern Ford!