A quick show of hands: is anyone out there still using an iPhone 3GS? A Palm Pre, perhaps? Maybe you’re still browsing the web on your Asus Eee PC netbook, or listening to your music on a Microsoft Zune HD player?
Of course you’re not. All of these gadgets, while once at the cutting edge of technology, were released in 2009. Technological advancements have meant their hardware just can’t keep up with the software requirements of today, and as such, all of these devices were discontinued and cut from their various support programmes between 2011 and 2013.
It’s a widely accepted fact that tech moves on quickly – millions of us upgrade our phones every two years without thought, and barely blink at the now near-ritualistic annual product launches from many manufacturers. So why did the announcement that Sonos would be cutting support to its (at least) decade-old, in some cases long-discontinued legacy products come as such a shock to so many?
If you missed the news, Sonos has announced it will no longer be providing ongoing support to some of its oldest products, including the first-generation Play:5, the original Zone Players (ZP80, ZP90, ZP100 and ZP120), Sonos Connect or Connect: Amp, the CR200 controller or the Sonos Bridge, from May 2020.
While they will continue to work in their current state, Sonos said in a blog post that the wireless speakers have been “stretched to their technical limits in terms of processing power” and “would no longer receive software updates or new features”.
The real sting in the tail, however, was the news that systems containing both new and legacy products would be counted out of updates too, with users offered the choice of simply “recognising” this or upgrading at a 30 per cent discount – a move that would place their current, perfectly functional devices into Recycle Mode and render them useless.
It didn’t take long for owners of these products to take to Twitter, furious with the news that had been, arguably pretty poorly, communicated to them via email. Their anger was palpable. The hashtag #SonosBoycott accompanied many of the complaints, with calls for class action lawsuits and claims that the early adopters at the heart of the company’s success were now being punished for their loyalty.
Keen to calm the storm, CEO Patrick Spence released a statement on January 23 promising ongoing bug fixes would be released where at all possible and that the company is now working on a solution to allow legacy products and new devices to be split into separate systems, preventing newer devices being locked off from updates.
Coming up with this solution from the get go might have saved Sonos something of a PR nightmare, but we have to ask ourselves, wasn’t this situation always going to happen with products like these? And shouldn’t we be bracing ourselves for this to happen increasingly more often in the coming years?
Sonos is arguably the godfather of the connected devices market. Some of its earliest products were released before streaming services were even a thing, and came out many years before names like Siri and Alexa became part of our daily vocabularies.
So it makes sense that it finds itself as the first company of its ilk to break the news that the tech you invest in today is unlikely to be supported forever. When you’ve been at the receiving end of feature upgrades, bug fixes and even sound improvements over the internet for the best part of a decade, that can be a bitter pill to swallow.
But that doesn’t make that expectation any more realistic. We are now starting to see the limitations that the great leaps forward we’ve made in technology places on older products, without realising that we now have better products on our shelves than the ones we bought in the first place.
It doesn’t help that Sonos, in its essence, crosses over into the hi-fi market – a market that prides itself in its longevity. Well-made speakers and amplifiers from the ‘70s, ‘80s and even earlier can still sound as good now as they did then, but feature upgrades and sound improvements will still require you to spend money.
Some hi-fi companies like NAD offer modular updates to your kit, avoiding the need of replacing your whole system just to add Bluetooth, for example. While that helps to reduce waste, another sticking point in this whole debacle, it’s still a cost that needs to be considered.
Of course, the big difference is that if you’re happy with your hi-fi system as it is, you can continue to use it in exactly the same way you could when you bought it – something that Sonos can’t promise with its legacy kit.
And therein lies the issue. Much of this is not actually down to Sonos, but down to the third parties it works with to create the experience it does. It is not alone in this. Amazon’s Echo, Google Home – pretty much every smart home device you can think of relies on the services of others to be the product it is. That is where the complications arise.
For example, when Apple launched AirPlay 2, Sonos was inundated for requests to include it. However, the hardware requirements determined by Apple made its inclusion in Sonos speakers made before 2015 impossible.
“This is the first time we’ve addressed the limitations at scale,” says a Sonos spokesperson. “These legacy products were first introduced more than a decade ago. Our commitment is to support products with regular software updates for a minimum of five years after we stop selling them and have a track record for much longer.”
As for what legacy users can expect from May, Sonos says that while it will try to support legacy devices some features will inevitably stop working. “If a music service issues new software that cannot be made to be backward compatible, or requires more computing power than the old hardware can sustain, the customer may lose access to that service,” the spokesperson adds.
It’s clear that while we reap the benefits that internet-connected devices bring, we have to be prepared to accept their shortfalls too. While plenty of Sonos’ competitors have no doubt enjoyed watching the company squirm over the fallout of this, it’s important to remember that no rival producing similar products can promise endless futureproofing. The sooner we realise that, the better.
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