My New Sonos Bricks

See these? These are Sonos speakers, and they used to sit in my kitchen and living room. But I’m done with them now. I’d offer them to you, but they’re worthless. Incapable of functioning. They will never sing again.

I’m replacing these speakers with the latest model from Sonos. But usually when I upgrade, I can pass along my old hardware. I can give you my old television or DVD player or whatever. But when I looked at these old units sitting on the floor of my basement, they had a particularly forlorn look. They’re good for nothing but scrap.

We don’t expect things to last forever. We’re used to the value of things decreasing steadily over time. But my speakers experienced a step function, going from useful to useless as quickly as if they’d been dropped into a blender. Increasingly, hardware is only as good as its software, and increasingly that software is a cloud-only service provided at the whim of a far off firm. 

Here’s what happened.

I bought the speakers ten years ago, and they served me well. But recently Sonos offered me a good deal on new equipment — a 30% discount on brand new speakers if I would just get rid of my old ones. I could see where this was headed. Old hardware is a pain to support, and Sonos wants to be rid of these old boxes. They were offering me a carrot to upgrade now. But I had no doubt that behind their back they also carried a stick. At some point they will unilaterally withdraw support. I took the offer. Once I got my new speakers, Sonos headquarters sent a bullet down the wire that euthanized the old ones. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they would never work again for my account or anyone else’s.

I like my new speakers. I’m glad I upgaded. But Sonos, it occurred to me, has a lot more leverage over my inclination to upgrade than, say, the company that made my DVD player.

Soon enough, software will enter and enliven every object under the sun. Door knobs and dishwashers, toothbrushes and table tops, eyeglasses and egg cartons, mirrors and refrigerator magnets. They will all acquire amazing new skills. But if for some reason the software is voided, the objects must die. And it’s difficult to opt out. Software-enabled hardware is truly better. But you need to stay up-to-date, which means you need to be a customer in good standing with a healthy, trustworthy company. Otherwise your device will become a doorstop. You own the object, but you don’t own the soul. It’s an animal that you rent. It can die. It can turn on you. Mostly it will be a good deal, but it can go away at any time. Get used to it!

My wife drives a Ford Fusion hybrid. It’s packed with plenty of software, but she’s never updated it. As far as I can tell, that’s not something that Ford ever planned for. This is a snapshot from a simpler world. I drive a Tesla, and it gives you a sense of where the industry (not to mention the world) is headed. The car receives regular over-the-air updates. It’s great to have the car’s functionality constantly updated. But if the company went out of business, I can imagine the car becoming a large and expensive brick. I don’t mean to pick on Ford or Tesla. It’s just an example, along with Sonos, of the coming world. Live by the wire, die by the wire.

Related reading: My Jibo Is Dying and It’s Breaking My Heart | WIRED