The Future Doesn’t Last
A controversy around old Sonos devices is a reminder that software updates can be a death sentence
Software is both a lock and key. It can bring us to the future and keep us from it.
This week, Sonos said it would end support for certain “legacy products” that launched between 2006 and 2015. These devices, which include smart speakers, amps, and touchscreen controllers for multi-room audio, cost consumers hundreds of dollars when they first rolled out and will no longer receive software updates from the company. In declining to support them further, Sonos has effectively killed these products; they may shamble on for now, but glitches and compatibility problems will take them before long, banishing the once-promising future of high-end audio to the realm of basement clutter.
Without software updates, the products will not keep up with an evolving ecosystem of music streaming services and other connected devices. Sonos has also taken an unusually aggressive stance toward recycling this gear, implementing a kind of kill switch that disables old speakers in exchange for 30% of the devices’ original value in a “Trade Up” program. The company explained to the Verge last month that this process is meant to incentivize “e-recycling” of old products and prevent new customers from inadvertently buying models that may not work with modern software.
The reality is that this is an inherently unsustainable practice. It is simply not possible to reclaim and reuse every bit of material from electronics: To even approach sustainability, gadgets must be able to be repaired and used by new owners forever. This is part of the reason why mechanical functions, an endangered species in the technology industry, are so important. A music player that fundamentally relies on physical pieces, like a hard drive, mechanical power switch, and a 3.5mm audio jack, can continue to function even if optional software, like iTunes, goes poof: It’s why there’s still a vibrant iPod modding community to this day.
(Of course, there are disadvantages here compared to true physical media — a portable CD player with two AA batteries will work even after an apocalypse wipes out all of our power lines and internet infrastructure — but by then, we have bigger…