We need to rethink ‘smart tech’ — Tech Bytes — Articles — Tech Bytes
“Smart tech is a terrible idea and it needs to be rethought”
Last week, the ‘speaker’ manufacturer Sonos announced that it would be ending support for its legacy products in May 2020. In an unbelievable act of boldness, Sonos offered a thirty-percent trade-in discount customers who owned speakers that would no longer be receiving updates. If these customers took up the offer and purchased the new gear at a discount, their older devices would be ‘ bricked ‘ — effectively making them useless to anyone. For those not familiar, Sonos is a ‘speaker’ company who’s secret sauce was allowing for perfect, simultaneous audio to be played through its devices thanks to a proprietary network system it developed. This debacle was well reported in the tech media.
“Last month, Sonos ran into criticism over its “recycle mode,” a software kill-switch that renders these legacy products inoperable whenever customers opt to participate in the trade-up program for a 30 percent discount on a current Sonos product. Sonos says recycle mode helps clear a device of user data and “protects unsuspecting people from buying legacy products that are approaching the end of their useful life.” Nothing about the program or recycle mode is changing today, and Sonos insists it takes this approach to encourage responsible e-recycling practices.”
- The Verge
During a discussion on the popular podcast, This Week in Tech on Jan 26th, Leo Laporte points out that Sonos is less of a speaker company but an Internet of Things (IoT) company. And, every Internet-connected device has an expiry date because the software can’t be supported forever. The panel went on to discuss some of the issues with IoT and ‘smart’ devices which I’ve been ruminating on for a long time. Now seems like the appropriate time to delve into the problems with the smart home. We need to rethink smart tech, and what I’m going to talk about has been suggested by many excellent technology journalists.
If you’re interested in the Sonos story, here are a few articles that will get you up to speed…
The bigger picture
In 2018, I wrote perhaps the most clicked article ever on this blog. It was titled “The abandonware economy,” and I discussed what happens when the software is no longer supported and what that does to users who’ve invested money into an application, as well as what happens to the hardware when that software goes away. If you Google the Sonos story, you’ll see articles titled “ How IoT betrays us” and “ The Sonos outrage exposes the smart home’s expensive flaw “ to name just a couple examples. My arguments highlighting the problems with abandoned software apply equally to hardware and smart tech. Smart tech and the smart home are terrible ideas and they need to be rethought.
The Sonos example is just the first of many as more devices become Internet-connected. Your devices, if dependant on software, will eventually stop working. And, unless there’s a workaround or a third-party open-source solution, it’s highly likely your smart devices are destined to become expensive paperweights.
Hundreds of millions of users are experiencing the pain that follows when ubiquitous and popular software is no longer supported; Microsoft dropped support for Windows 7 earlier this month. However, there’s a difference between Microsoft’s Windows and Sonos. A computer is a modular device capable (theoretically) of running many operating systems. A decently fast Windows 7 machine can easily have a slick Linux distribution installed — an OS that will continue to be updated and secure for years to come. If you check email, browse the web, play music, do word processing, and even game Linux would have you covered. A game console (a Playstation 2 or an original Xbox come to mind) that no longer supports online play can still function as a local, single-player gaming machine. Services like Xlink Kai allow these devices to have a new life online thanks to a dedicated community. Android phones that no longer receive updates can have third party ROMs installed. Voila! Up-to-date and secure OS. ‘Computers’, by definition, are modular and flexible devices, so while they won’t last forever there are options to extend their life.
Computers, which is what smart devices effectively are, can gain and lose features over time. The latter is something that companies fail to tell their users. They compute, but they are not flexible.
“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…
…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.”
- One Zero
What alternative software can you install on your Sonos, or your smart TV, or your smart refrigerator? Nothing. Once software support is dropped for these devices, they can no longer carry out their primary function, or at the very least will lose much of their functionality. Ironically, my 1980s speakers work GREAT, and the receiver has enough ports to be updated through modular hardware upgrades.
“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. “
- Wired UK
Sonos, unfortunately, is just the start. A smart speaker no longer being supported is one thing, your smart thermostat, garage door opener, or security system not being supported suddenly make the situation more urgent. My concern with smart is that our home’s critical infrastructure will eventually all be ‘smart’ — meaning that we’ll have to upgrade it much more often. The idea of updating my smart furnace a decade earlier than usual is a tough pill to swallow, and it will be hard why these devices are so dependant on software to average users.
“The more connected devices you put in your house, the more you’re counting down to the day they’re eventually obsolete. Just yesterday, we learned about Under Armour pulling the smart plug on some fitness devices it used to sell, but the big news is Sonos and its decision to put the “legacy” tag on a slew of older devices.”
Despite the rhetoric from technology companies that sustainability is a priority, consider how much electronic waste is created when people unnecessarily update their devices. All electronics are eventually destined for the junk heap — like everything. But, e-waste, as it turns out, is a BIG problem. Just look at the documentary Tweeted by The Verge.
It seems that the phrase ‘made to last’ isn’t a mantra that’s followed in the ‘smart tech’ or ‘smart home’ market.
What can we do to rethink ‘smart’?
There are things people can do to avoid getting stuck with bricked devices, but it involves being deliberate about technology purchasing choices. Ultimately, we need to adopt a mindset of modularity in electronics.
As I mentioned above, my old stereo set (which is anything but smart) works decades later. In a ZDNet article, Jason Perlow notes that speaker fidelity hasn’t changed drastically since the 1920s. If users and technology enthusiasts adopted a more modular mindset, you can augment the existing technology to be smart. Perlow speculated about an open audio standard to replace Sonos. But, there are already solutions. Using a Raspberry Pi computer board, one can create simultaneous multi-room audio using HiFiBerry or more DIY-type projects. If you want to turn your old stereo into a device you can stream to, a new receiver isn’t necessary. One can easily add a Bluetooth dongle or use a Raspberry Pi to make your own AirPlay device.
Inexpensive and flexible computers like the Raspberry Pi, allow for non-embedded smart devices. Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices can be built using the Pi. If support is dropped, you still have a capable computer board. I’ve demonstrated on my other blog how a Pi-powered media centre is not only easy to build (and doubles as a networked attached storage) but is infinitely more capable than the ‘smart’ experience built into modern TVs. Of course, you don’t need to build your own solution. Apple TVs, Roku and Nvidia Sheild all allow your dumb TV to be smart. A monitor with a set-top box is a far better, and more modular, solution for users, but it makes it harder for companies to resell us TVs that can’t be bricked.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are all sorts of open source solutions so you can create smart lighting, garage door openers, etc.
Some concluding words
There is a difference between open source and open standards. Currently, Apple, Google, and Amazon are working together on a standard (how open it is remains to be seen) that would theoretically allow smart devices to talk to each other more easily.
The open-source smart solutions require more technical knowledge. So clearly, more out of the box, and modular, solutions are necessary. I also wonder how much smart tech average users want in their home. Call me a skeptic, but I still — when at parties or office gatherings — see people plugging in their phone, tablet, laptop, or (if you’re like me) a click wheel iPod into an audio jack to play music. Wired solutions don’t break and they don’t require software updates. My colleagues who don’t want to invest in a smart TV (or don’t have a Roku) plug their laptops into it directly. Lots of old-school solutions, despite being a little more cumbersome, are widely used. It feels like smart tech is being pushed on the market rather than responding to demand.
Smart technology has done a great disservice to users. Sticking the word ‘smart’ in front of electronics fools users into thinking they’re getting increased functionality. This is true, but all evidence suggests that they’re trading it for flexibility. Electronics and computing need to have less built-in smart functions and instead be more modular. Wouldn’t you prefer it if your Sonos speakers worked as… speakers?
Originally published at https://tech-bytes.net on January 29, 2020.