The Future Doesn’t Last

A controversy around old Sonos devices is a reminder that software updates can be a death sentence

Photo: Phil Barker/Future Publishing via Getty Images

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 problems, like the cybernetic arms of our techno-octopod overlords coiling around our throats oh god oh god.)

Sonos has built its business on smart speakers that generally rely on software and wireless technology to function. This has resulted in really nice, convenient products that people love to use — and that certainly last quite a bit longer than, say, the smartphone you might be reading this on — but it also necessitates updates for the devices to process new features like Apple’s AirPlay 2 protocol. As we’re seeing now, it also results in disposable hardware.

And that’s a really tough thing to deal with. As we’ve written, creating gadgets is inherently destructive, requiring a huge energy expenditure for materials to be stripped from the earth and processed in factories. Things are also bad at the other end: Millions upon millions of tons of electronic waste are generated every year, and a lot of it is toxic.

It might go without saying, but this clock cannot tick forever. As a bottom line, this cycle has a significant climate impact. But in more practical terms, there is not an unlimited supply of material on this planet from which we can create new products.

So Sonos, and companies like Sonos, are in a tricky position: How can they talk about “Sustainability” when their products are doomed to death by software? They certainly could start by avoiding kill switches and incorporating mechanical parts that will provide some functionality after the devices are rendered “obsolete” by a new AirPlay (in its defense, Sonos does have an audio jack in some of its products). They could dedicate themselves to modular design, to reclaiming and reusing every part from old devices.

There are many paths forward — but we need to get off the one we’re on.

Co-Founder and Former Editor in Chief, OneZero at Medium

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