What happens when your smart home is obsolete?

A recent controversy sparked by smart speaker maker Sonos illustrates the dangers of building a smart home. What happens when the technology you build your home on is suddenly obsolete? That’s the quandary that many Sonos customers are facing this week after the company announced the end of support for its oldest products, some of which have been in use for more than a decade.

Sonos says those older devices are too limited to continue to support with new updates. There’s no need for me to recap the Sonos controversy here – read our coverage for more details.

Sonos got in trouble for initially suggesting that its newer devices won’t be updated if the older devices remain in use, but it’s since walked that back. And it’s also worth noting at the start that this isn’t the first time a smart home appliance maker has aged out a product or service they offered, either. Just the latest high-profile example.

But the issue reminds us of one of the big perils these days of rigging out a home or office with “smart” technology. What happens when the makers of that technology decide it isn’t worth supporting anymore?

Smart home upswing

Smart home tech is on the rise. The annual revenue from smart home platforms – already in the billions – is expected to grow in double digits for the next several years. If you walk into any home improvement business like Home Depot, Lowe’s, or even your local hardware store, you’ll see smart home products almost as soon as you walk in. New home builders are enticing customers with built-in new smart home features. In fact, studies show that as many as half of all new home buyers expect to see smart home technology when they’re in the market for a new place.

There’s also a lot of interest from consumers in adding smart tech to existing homes. Homeowners have myriad reasons for incorporating smart technology into their homes. Convenience. Security. Economy, in the cases of learning thermostats and smart outlets.

The obsolete smart home

What makes all of these devices different from their dumb counterparts is that the technology that makes them work is constantly evolving. Apple, Google, Amazon, and others are all competing with each other and clamoring to bring new features and functionality to their products, even as consumer tastes change and as the technology evolves.

Smart home appliance makers are flooding the market with sophisticated technology that makes it easy to do things we couldn’t dream of a decade ago. But there’s no guarantee that any of these devices will continue to work after a few years.

Amazon, Apple, and Google and the companies in the Zigbee Alliance understand this, too. Their Connected Home over IP effort is an attempt to stabilize the smart home marketplace with a baseline technical standard for interoperability and compatibility. That doesn’t mean that smart home appliances won’t keep aging out, though.

Hopefully they’ll continue to work, though. Certainly it isn’t novel that the devices we depend on eventually age out of being updated with new features. Look no further than your pocket or desktop for an example. Every year Apple exposes new features in iOS and macOS that make use of new hardware technology. Older devices fall by the wayside. If you’re still using an iPhone 6, for example, you can’t run iOS 13. And an iPhone 6s is going to be very different with iOS 13 than an iPhone 11.

In praise of the DIY ethic

All this reminds me that there’s something to be said for “dumb” products. Say what you want about the cheap vinyl mini-blinds I put in my bedroom when we moved in 18 years ago – they work without any firmware updates. I may not be able to rise and lower the shades from my bed, but at least the windows still open even if my iPhone is in the shop.

That’s not to say that I haven’t added smart home technology in where it makes sense, either. But so far I haven’t backed any products or services that have been abandoned yet, either. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky on that count.

Situations like this remind me that I have to be careful when I’m making those decisions about what smart home devices and services to add, though. I’m worried about being overdependent on technology whose ultimate operation is something that’s still up to the manufacturer, not me.

I’d never consider myself a handyman, nor would anyone who’s ever seen my handiwork. But I’m also solidly in favor of the Do It Yourself ethic. That’s why I was interested to learn more about how Raspberry Pi users have been adding HomeKit support to their products. Using a framework called HomeBridge, they’re able to interface HomeKit devices with Raspberry Pis. For folks who’d rather roll their own gear, it’s a cool option.

Anyway, regardless of whether I roll my own or buy a finished product, I have to constantly remember not to overautomate myself, and be wary of backing into dead end technology.

Or just being happy with what I have, no matter how antiquated.

How about you? Are you wary of getting obsolete smart home gear? Have you gotten burned, either by Sonos or someone else? Let me know in the comments.