Thoughts on Sonos and what it means for the future of all ‘hardware’

Some months ago, audio company Sonos made a very unpopular announcement. The company declared that it would be changing support for a number of older products. This caused great consternation as the company had said, many times on the public record, that because of the way the products were made, new features could be retrofitted to older equipment. This is because almost every component within a Sonos speaker is under software control.

After a huge amount of backlash from its customer community, Sonos backtracked and drew a line in the sand, declaring older products, made before May 2020, part of an ‘S1’ environment and anything newer is part of ‘S2’.

In some ways, this approach from Sonos makes sense. No matter how forward thinking a company might be – and Sonos remains out in front of almost everyone when it comes to supporting legacy equipment with new features as well as bug fixes and patches – there comes a time when new adding new features to old hardware gets really hard.

My household has a variety of Sonos gear; an original Play:5 , a newer Play:5 (but not the all new Five), a One and a Beam. That mix of gear puts me back in the ‘legacy’ camp and works best with the Sonos S1 app. That’s because my oldest speaker, the original Play:5, was made before 2015.

Sonos has released a support document that outlines what happens when you choose the S1 system, when you need to have the S2 set up and how to move from one to the other when you add new Sonos gear to your mix. Speakers made after 2015 can work with the S2 app but you can’t mix things up.

Sonos says:

If you’d like to update to the new S2 app but continue to use your S1 Sonos products, you can split your Sonos system into two separate systems and control them both using two apps. The new Sonos S2 app will control your S2 products and the Sonos S1 Controller app will control your S1 products. 

For most existing Sonos customers, not much of this matters – yet. But when Sonos adds a new speaker to its array and you want to add it, you’ll need to either run two Sonos networks or “downgrading” newer S2 gear to work in S1.

Sounds messy doesn’t it?

The problem here isn’t that Sonos is abandoning owners of older equipment. Companies do it all the time. Think of Apple and its ecosystem. I’ve got an older MacBook Air that can’t run the latest version of macOS. And each year, when a new version of iOS is released, an older generation of iPhones and iPads is left behind.

One problem is that Sonos has, for many years, said it would keep supporting and adding new features to older products and never indicated that its policy on this would change.

Everything is software is everything

The other issue I see is one that Sonos can do little about. I’ve come to realise that Sonos does not make speakers. They make computers that deliver sound from a number of different sources and integrate with Amazon Alexa and Google Home. And, like any computer system, there comes a time when the maker needs to cut ties with the past and stop supporting older hardware with its latest software.

One of the most common sayings in tech circles over recent years is that “software is eating the world”. And this is what we are seeing play out in Sonos’ journey. While the company makes great speakers, they are totally dependent on software. You can’t use a Sonos speaker without the app and an internet connection.

Almost every technology company of significance on the planet (there are a couple of exceptions) is really a software company.

For consumers, that means we need to think of the hardware we buy in terms of software. When you buy a smart speaker, PC, smartphone, tablet, smoke detector, smart light switch or anything else that relies on data to operate, you are really buying a highly customised computer running bespoke software.

The question you need to ask is – how long will the maker support me with new, or at least regularly patched, software? Some might do it for a long time as Sonos has over the years. But others might be less committed to supporting you in the long term, happy to take your money today with little thought to keeping you happy for years to come.

While the Sonos situation may end up becoming messy, at least we can see a track record for how they might move forward over the next few years. Can you say the same for all the connected devices in your home or office?