If you’re like me, you’ve dabbled in ‘smart home’ or home automation technologies. Maybe you’ve installed a Ring doorbell to keep an eye on your packages. Maybe you save energy using a Nest thermostat in your home. Or maybe you’ve installed some smart lighting or bought a smart TV.
Cool kid on the block
Without a doubt, though, the most popular and the most visible smart home segment over the last few years has been smart speakers. These devices, typically ranging in price from $20 up to $300 or more, have taken the world by storm. The space is packed with big brands such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Bose, Harmon Kardon, JBL, and newer players like Anker, all offering their own flavor of speaker hardware with a variety of form factors and features catering to every need.
Smart speakers are also incredibly versatile. They can stream music or be used for phone calls. They can provide news, weather and traffic updates, set reminders and timers, or stream your favorite podcast. And let’s not forget that smart speakers have become much better at understanding natural human speech, as demonstrated at Google’s I/O event in 2019 (and at the same event in 2018).
Although not perfect, cloud-connected smart devices like doorbells, thermostats and speakers – and the platforms that support them – are incredibly useful. Having said that, there are some well documented privacy concerns. For me, another lingering issue lies in the ecosystem itself. Has the market matured enough to make these devices good long-term investments? The track record hasn’t been great so far. We’d like to think that these products will last for many years, but there’s really no guarantee. Blame industry consolidation and a bad case of ecosystem growing pains.
Dealing with Obsolescence
That’s a long-winded introduction to talk specifically about Sonos. The company that’s famous for its high quality smart speakers faced some swift backlash from consumers and media outlets last week when it announced the end of support for some of its older products. This was despite the fact that some of the products were sold new as recently as 2015.
This came on the heels of a poorly received “Recycle Mode” announcement by the company at the end of 2019. Recycle Mode, which Sonos promoted as part of a trade-in program, caused older Sonos speakers to be bricked, even though they were completely usable. Instead of allowing these older speakers to be resold, the hardware could only be stripped for spare parts.
Why did Sonos decide to pull the plug on first-generation products? Their reasoning was that first-generation devices lacked the processing muscle and memory to add new features. That may be true, but it also seems like a shortsighted decision. Yes, Sonos, like every other hardware manufacturer, is in the business of selling equipment. But forcing users to discard functioning devices in the hopes that they’ll move to the next shiny object just isn’t sustainable or fiscally responsible.
In this instance, Sonos CEO, Patrick Spence, bowed to public pressure by stating that the company’s older products would continue to receive bug fixes, even if they cannot be updated with new features. That’s a good compromise.
Playing the long game
But let’s step back a little and think about this from the point of view of a consumer, or even a large organization or public sector IT administrator. The real world often moves slower than the breakneck pace of technology advancement. For many people, cost, reliability and long-term usability trump the need for things like a better screen, more cameras or faster Wi-Fi.
If you’re like me, you just want your technology to work, and to be supported, for as long as possible. We can see this in the Right to Repair movement gaining momentum around the world. But other factors like device longevity and obsolescence need to be taken into account more. We need to reduce our e-waste, and we need to build products that are more future proof. This isn’t just a problem for Sonos, but the way Sonos approached the problem was a reminder that we have a long way to go.