Ultimately Not Smart

Article By : Rebecca Day

Looking forward to the day when "smart homes" are so common they'll be known as just "homes."

People in tech love to talk about the future in sweeping, inclusive terms. Table stakes, for instance, is a favorite term for the next plateau we’ll all stand on. It’s table stakes these days for retailers to have mobile shopping apps so customers can shop from their phones, and those that don’t have such an app, the pundits say, will be left behind.

At a recent Parks Associates smart energy conference, we learned that someday soon the word “smart” will disappear from smart home because every home will be connected. Homes that aren’t smart will be the exception, said a Universal Electronics exec, speaking about his company’s entry into the smart home business through the HVAC channel.

BMW introduced a wireless charging pad in the US in 2019. (Source: BMW)

Last week, Charlie Goetz, CEO of wireless charging company Powercast, told me that in the not-too-distant future power cords plugged into a wall outlet will be a thing of the past. A generation that has already been born will grow up to think it’s medieval to plug small electronics into a charging cable at night. Try explaining current wired charging rituals to today’s toddlers in a decade or so, and “They’ll look at you as if you tried to describe an 8-track player” to a 2021 kid with a phone and earbuds. By then, he said, we’ll be parking our EVs over a wireless charger on the garage floor every night, and we’ll want all of our devices to charge that way.

Software advances will put intelligence in devices so that they’ll know “where they are, what power is available to them,” Goetz said. Operating systems will micro-manage wireless charging in an automatic process that begins when, say, a wearable enters a charger’s zone, maybe five feet away. Smart clothes will trickle-charge in drawers, powered by a wireless charger not far away. The process will be seamless and invisible to the user: In the golden era of wireless charging, devices will “finally take care of their users as opposed to their users always having to take care of their devices.”

That same kind of intelligence is finding its way into the audio space. The one-time hands-on experience of placing a record on a turntable or a CD into a disc player has transitioned to a voice-controlled world of streamed music. Some things happen in the background without any user intervention at all.

Multiroom audio company Sonos sees a world where software rules, and that can be a head-spinning concept for a company associated with selling loudspeakers. CEO Patrick Spence didn’t mince words last week at an investor event when outlining the pecking order of his vision: “We’re the story of software eating audio.” That’s from the former Research in Motion exec who still laments not building the right culture for the Blackberry “that could pivot away from hardware when that was the right move.”

That pivot may be inevitable, but it’s been a rough transition for long-time Sonos customers who came out of the analog audio world, where a good loudspeaker can easily perform admirably for well beyond a decade. Sonos got into hot water with some of those loyalists last year when it announced an operating system upgrade that would render older speakers, if not inoperable, obsolete. They wouldn’t have the memory or processing power to handle future software updates and features.

If you have a cybernetic brain implant, do you even need speakers?

Last week, Sonos starting taking pre-orders for the latest product to take advantage of the new software platform, a $169 portable speaker it wants Gen Zers to take to the beach and pair with their smartphones. But it’s not just any Bluetooth speaker. The Roam has Wi-Fi, too, and when those twentysomethings return home, the handheld speaker can “throw” its music to the other Sonos speakers in the house, which will automatically play the music — as long as they’ve been able to upgrade to the next-gen OS.

The Roam is also a smart speaker, controllable by Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. And it tunes itself to its surroundings automatically, even over Bluetooth, to deliver the best sound for the space. The same mics that listen for your query about the weather listen for acoustics and adjust the sound for whether you’re in an office or outdoors. My first-gen Sonos speaker couldn’t do that. No question it’s cool.

Still, I can’t help but think of what my eighty-something friend Red thinks about all this. He made me promise not to tell his significant other what he paid for his $699 Sonos Playbar when it came out in 2013. Playbar has been discontinued, and though it’s still being supported, the writing is on the wall for the 8-year-old sound bar. Like Red, the speaker’s memory won’t last forever, and its processing power will fall short of handling the latest algorithms. Then, he’ll have to find another music playback solution, a lot to ask of a guy who just wants to enjoy ‘40s Junction on SiriusXM.

That chomp chomp? The sound of software eating audio.

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