The Death of Planned Obsolescence

Why today’s gadgets keep getting better. (At least until the battery dies.)

Sonos ZP120 in bedroom

In 2005, a Southern California start-up named Sonos put out a multiroom digital music system, a gadget that sounds straightforward but was actually ahead of its time. Back then, music had already gone digital, but most digital players were meant to be used on the go, not at home. If the iPod is the modern version of the Walkman, Sonos is the reincarnation of the home stereo. It uses wireless networks to string together small “ZonePlayers,” stand-alone devices that pipe stereo-quality sound to different rooms in your house. You control the Sonos through a Wi-Fi remote that sports a big LCD screen and an iPod-like scroll wheel. Together, the system’s components add up to something transformative: Sonos frees your songs from tinny computer speakers, bringing music to far-flung corners of your McMansion.

But that was three years ago—an eternity in the gadget world. Last week, Sonos offered its first major hardware overhaul since the product’s debut (the company decreased the size and increased the networking capabilities of its ZonePlayers). What’s remarkable, though, is that while its hardware has barely changed in three years, the Sonos system has improved tremendously since it went on sale. In 2006, the company issued a software update to every Sonos sold—suddenly, the system could play audiobooks. A few months after that, another update allowed Sonos players to hook into the Rhapsody online music service, which meant that for $13 a month, people could now listen to millions of tracks that they didn’t own. Later, Sonos added Napster, Pandora, and Sirius, plus a slew of free Internet radio stations. Last year, the company improved its controller’s user interface, adding a function that lets you search your tunes from the device—another feature that every Sonos owner got through a software update.

The Sonos isn’t cheap—you’ll pay $999 for a basic two-room plan, and each additional room will set you back $350 to $500, depending on your hardware needs (the company describes its customer base as “affluent”). But its high price is tempered by a feature that, until recently, was unheard-of in the consumer electronics market: A Sonos you buy today will get better as it ages. Through software updates, people who bought the very first Sonos system enjoy pretty much the same functionality that they’d find on a Sonos made two months ago. The company even extends its special offers to its existing customers—last week, both new and current users got a $200 coupon to purchase music from various online services.

Sonos’ approach signals a larger shift in the gadget industry, a business that has long titillated its customers with short-lived thrills—what gadget-lovers derisively call “planned obsolescence.” It used to be that a gadget worked the best on the day you bought it; every day afterward, it would fall deeper under the shadow of something newer and more fantastic. But because music players, cell phones, cameras, GPS navigators, video game consoles, and nearly everything else now runs on Internet-updatable software, our gadgets’ functions are no longer static. It’s still true that a gizmo you buy today will eventually be superseded by something that comes along later. But just like Meryl Streep, your devices will now dazzle you as they age. They’ll gain new functions and become easier to use, giving you fewer reasons to jump to whatever hot new thing is just hitting the market.

To appreciate how amazing this is, imagine if the same rules held sway in the car industry. Five years after you bought it, you could take your beater to the shop, and after a quick patch it’d be blessed with electronic stability control, a more fuel-efficient engine, and a radio that received satellite broadcasts.

That sort of metamorphosis is now routine in the consumer electronics business. When Microsoft released the Zune music player late in 2006, critics panned its poor song-beaming feature—you could send tracks to other Zunes, but the music would self-destruct after three days. A year later, Microsoft released a slate of new Zunes. The players featured a more intuitive user interface, and Microsoft dropped the time limit on beamed songs. But here’s the kicker: People who’d bought the original Zune also got the new features. A similar thing happened when Apple revamped its original, lame Apple TV set-top box with a less-lame version a few months later. Overnight, a software update gave old Apple TVs the power to buy movies directly from the couch, a feature that had been left out of the first version.

The decline of planned obsolescence is a special boon for start-up companies that aim to break into the market with an entirely new kind of product. A couple of weeks ago, I raved about the Dash GPS navigator, which uses an Internet connection to produce “crowd-sourced” traffic forecasts along your drive. According to the forums on the company’s site, there’s a lot about the Dash device that people don’t like, in particular that its interface is a bit homely, and its traffic detection fails on some roads. But Dash has made its flexibility a key part of its sales pitch: If you’re on the fence about the device—if it lacks certain capabilities that you wish it had—the company points out that you won’t miss anything by buying now. Your device will eventually get any new functions that are rolled out in new versions.

Of course, there are some features that you can’t get through software updates. Because our gadgets are now much like computers, the specs that matter are the same ones we pay attention to when buying PCs—disk space, processor speed, and networking capabilities. For instance, you can expect all future iPods to carry more disk capacity than the one you own today. In the same way, next-generation video game systems will run on much faster processors than are found in today’s consoles, and the cell phones of tomorrow will surely include faster wireless Internet speeds than cell phones of today. And one more thing: Eventually the battery in your current phone or PDA or music player will die, and if your device is made by Apple, replacing the battery will be enough of a pain to prompt you to buy something new.

Still, it’s surprising how many features can be added to a device without upgrading its hardware. Last month, Apple released the 3G iPhone, which includes faster Internet access than its predecessor, plus GPS access. People who bought the first iPhone can’t get those benefits, but they did get what’s arguably the best thing in the new iPhone—a software update that allows the device to run third-party applications.

One of these apps magically turns your iPhone into a remote control for iTunes on your computer. I couldn’t help thinking of that app as I played around with the fantastic Sonos unit that the company sent me two weeks ago. I fell for the Sonos instantly—the ability to call up any song in any room of your house is hard not to love. But as I played around with the device, I kept thinking of new features I’d like. I want the Sonos to be able to play NPR’s Web streams (which can be paused, unlike the Sonos’ Internet radio version of NPR). I’d like the Sonos to act like a DVR, recording certain radio stations at certain times. Mainly, though, I want to be able to control the Sonos through my iPhone, which is much smaller and lighter than the device’s own remote.

In an interview, Phil Abram, the company’s COO, wouldn’t tell me the specific features the Sonos plans to add to its units. But lots of people are asking for an iPhone interface. If the company wants to make its customers happy, it will build one soon—and when that does happen, people who own today’s model won’t be left out in the cold.