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.
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 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.
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