Sonos angers its customers with a tone-deaf email. Then it recovers.

When you have a difficult decision to share, it matters a lot how you communicate it. Sonos proved this by annoying its customers with a message about obsolescing products, then turning around and making things better the next day.

The original Sonos post was offensive

Here’s the hard fact: technology products become obsolete. After a while, companies can’t support what they originally created. That’s the challenge that Sonos faced.

What Sonos did, though, was turn that problem into a sales pitch to upgrade, combined with a threat to make the old products unworkable. That annoyed the heck out of loyal customers.

Here’s most of the original January 22 post with my comments:

Starting in May 2020, some of our oldest products will no longer receive software updates or new features. We want to explain why and your options.

This is clear enough. It’s also scary from somebody who bought their older products — it implies that those products could stop working in May.

When we first set out almost 20 years ago to invent the technology to easily listen to any song in any room, most of the ways we listen to music today did not exist. In fact, the first Sonos products were introduced before the first iPhone was announced and when Myspace still ruled social media.

In order to invent multi-room music and smart speakers, we combined the worlds of high-fidelity audio and computing. Every Sonos product has a microprocessor, flash memory, and other hardware components typically found in computers and smartphones.

Since launching our first products, technology has advanced at an exponential rate; from streaming services and voice assistants to wireless networking and Bluetooth capabilities. Through all of this transformation, we have continued delivering new features via software updates. We’re extremely proud of the fact that we build products that last a long time, and that listeners continue to enjoy them. In fact, 92% of the products we’ve ever shipped are still in use today. That is unheard of in the world of consumer electronics. However, we’ve now come to a point where some of the oldest products have been stretched to their technical limits in terms of memory and processing power.

This coming May, these legacy products—our original Zone Players, Connect, and Connect:Amp (launched in 2006; includes versions sold until 2015), first-generation Play:5 (launched 2009), CR200 (launched 2009), and Bridge (launched 2007)—will no longer receive software updates or new features.

Today the Sonos experience relies on an interconnected ecosystem, giving you access to more than 100 streaming services, voice assistants, and control options like Apple AirPlay 2. Without new software updates, access to services and overall functionality of your sound system will eventually be disrupted, particularly as partners evolve their technology.

People aren’t stupid. When you start with a fairy tale about how technology evolves, right after telling them you’ll stop updating their products, they know they’re about to get screwed. Nobody cares how music technology has evolved — the more you describe it, the more they prepare to be upset. After describing the products that won’t receive updates, Sonos ends with a passive threat: “access to services and overall functionality of your sound system will eventually be disrupted.” The implication is, it’s not our fault, somebody will “disrupt” your products, we won’t say who, but look out for trouble.

To help you through this transition, we’re providing two options:

Option 1:
Continue using these legacy products, recognizing that your system will no longer receive software updates and new features.

Option 2:
Trade up to a new Sonos product with a 30% credit for each legacy product you replace.

This feels like blackmail, watch your products obsolesce, or let us brick them and force you to upgrade. (I’ve omitted the description of how to recycle the products after they’ve been rendered inoperative.)

Ideally all our products would last forever, but for now we’re limited by the existing technology. Our responsibility here is threefold: build products that last a long time; continually look for ways to make our products more environmentally friendly through materials, packaging, and our supply chain and take responsibility for helping you through the transition once products near the end of their useful life.

We’ve always believed in freedom of choice, whether that means choosing a certain streaming service or way to control your listening experience. We hope the choices provided here—continuing to use these products without new software updates or trading up to our modern products—enable you to make the choice that’s right for you.

We are honored to have a place in your home and want to make sure that we help continue to bring the best experience we can, even when products reach the end of their useful life.

Adding “We’ve always believed in freedom of choice,” makes this worse, since neither of the choices is very appealing. Sonos leaves the customer feeling that they’ve been penalized for being loyal.

The followup post, which shows more logic and respect, undoes much of the damage

If you make a mistake, fix it, and fix it quickly. That’s what Sonos did the next day, with a message from the CEO. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better.

A letter from our CEO:
All Sonos products will continue to work past May

We heard you. We did not get this right from the start. My apologies for that and I wanted to personally assure you of the path forward:

This starts off much better. It has a byline from the CEO. It reassures customers of their main concern: that their products will work. And it contains “apologies” for not getting it right the previous day. Ideally, the apology would say what they did wrong (positioning the choices as blackmail) and who they hurt (customers), but it’s still much better.

First, rest assured that come May, when we end new software updates for our legacy products, they will continue to work as they do today. We are not bricking them, we are not forcing them into obsolescence, and we are not taking anything away. Many of you have invested heavily in your Sonos systems, and we intend to honor that investment for as long as possible. While legacy Sonos products won’t get new software features, we pledge to keep them updated with bug fixes and security patches for as long as possible. If we run into something core to the experience that can’t be addressed, we’ll work to offer an alternative solution and let you know about any changes you’ll see in your experience.

Sonos may believe this is the same thing they said yesterday. It is not. It says that they will continue to update products with bug fixes and security patches. Nobody expects those products to work with every new music system on the market, but they do expect them to keep working properly. This sounds like a far better choice than the ones offered previously.

Secondly, we heard you on the issue of legacy products and modern products not being able to coexist in your home. We are working on a way to split your system so that modern products work together and get the latest features, while legacy products work together and remain in their current state. We’re finalizing details on this plan and will share more in the coming weeks.

Again, the focus is on “legacy products” continuing to work as best they can.

While we have a lot of great products and features in the pipeline, we want our customers to upgrade to our latest and greatest products when they’re excited by what the new products offer, not because they feel forced to do so. That’s the intent of the trade up program we launched for our loyal customers.

Much better. The first message really sounded like customers were being forced to upgrade. Whether on not “That’s the intent of the trade up program,” it sure came off that way.

Thank you for being a Sonos customer. Thank you for taking the time to give us your feedback. I hope that you’ll forgive our misstep, and let us earn back your trust. Without you, Sonos wouldn’t exist and we’ll work harder than ever to earn your loyalty every single day.

If you have any further questions please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Patrick Spence
CEO, Sonos

Spence has gotten the company back to where it was with this message. If he delivers on the promise, Sonos will continue to serve those customers — customers who were threatening to leave. That’s about the best you can do with an followup message.

Obsolescence scares the crap out of me

I have a Tesla Model 3. I bought it in 2018. What happens when it “no longer works” with modern systems? Will Telsa force me to upgrade or brick it?

In case you think this is an extreme perspective, consider this: My previous electric car was a Nissan LEAF. It had a telematic system that had made the poor choice of using older mobile data protocols. Once those became obsolete, Nissan gave me a choice: pay $150 to upgrade, or no longer receive map and software updates. I paid, but like the Sonos customers, I felt as if I were being blackmailed.

Older systems create security risks. If they don’t get update patches, malware can take them over and cause all sorts of problems. Right now, there’s an army of bots operating on unsecured Internet-connected security cameras.

This problem will continue to get worse. I think every connected product currently being manufactured, whether its a car or a speaker or a teddy bear, needs an end-of-life plan that keeps its from becoming a dangerous zombie. We consumers always focus on what we’re going to get now. We don’t worry about what will happen ten years later.

That knowledge should be built into every product. If the electronics makers won’t sign onto a code about it, then Congress ought to regulate it.

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  1. A few days ago, when I read about the Sonos controversy, I almost wrote to you to ask you to discuss how they handled it. I chickened out, figuring, “Naaah, this is too trivial.” I was wrong. Nice work. From now on, I’ll err on the side of annoying you with suggestions.

  2. This is nothing more than what Apple has done for 15 years, and far less politely than Sonos, even in their first communication cited here.

  3. Your analysis is spot on and therapeutic. My husband and I were very early adopters of Sonos. He was one of the many loyal customers railing at Sonos yesterday. The looming “end of life” plan for products is huge – as consumers we need to become massively more educated on what our dollar actually buys and what we actually own. The environmental impact of product obsolescence makes me ill. If I could waive my scepter, all manufactured goods would have to account for full-cycle impact with enforceable consequences. Thank you, Josh.