Sonos, a great example of a post-PC device (that's not a tablet)

Sonos, a great example of a post-PC device (that's not a tablet)

Summary: Post-PC doesn't have to be about smartphones and tablets. Sometimes a dedicated product can follow the philosophy of post-PC to a most beautiful effect...

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 13.49.51
A Sonos:5 in its natural habitat -- the lounge of a hipster.

We think of "post-PC" as meaning tablets and smartphones, but there are other things out there that are very "post-PC" without being either of those things.

Sonos -- a wireless music player -- is such a thing. Let's me take you through what it is, why it works, and why it's a perfectly post-PC.

What is it?

Each Sonos "wireless speaker" is an AC powered, self-contained unit that has a number of discrete amps and speaker drivers within. There are three main products: Sonos:3, Sonos:5, and Playbar.

You take a the rooms in your house and put zero or more Sonos speakers in each. Plug them in and they then configure themselves over their own wireless mesh network, ultimately using a bridge to reach over into your broadband and home Wi-Fi. 

You can stream music off of computers in your house, or -- providing it can get to your broadband connection -- it can stream from essentially every music service you can think of.

(There are some other products, but these are the basics.)

So that's loads of tech, but the beauty of it is is that you set it up, and all of that tech just disappears. All you get it music.

Attributes

Well, it's good because "you set it up, and all of that tech just disappears". That's the point.

The Sonos stuff has been nicely designed, although they don't have that "lovingly anointed with unicorn tears by fairies" feel of Apple products. But it has that same carefully designed, "gotta keep the end user happy" motive coming through load and clear, and in stereo. (No pun intended.)

My ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan even wrote about how he felt Apple should buy Sonos back in 2009. And they totally should have done.

Defining what a post-PC device is isn't easy. In my upcoming book, Death of the PC, the first chapter looks at doing just that. I now have a working set of seven attributes that I use to determine just how post-PC or pre-post-PC something is.

The seven attributes are: always-available, always-connected, relationship-centric, appliance-like, intimidation-free, monochronistic (one task at a time), and touch-based.

(The attributes in the book are designed to demarcate the difference between PCs, tablets, and smartphones. In hindsight, what it doesn't do so well is help with devices. Perhaps I shall have to go back and revise that chapter given how enlightening Sonos has been.)

Anyway, here are the post-PC attributes that Sonos gets good scores on:

  • Relationship-centric -- the central purpose has to connect us to the people and things that we love. And we all love music. Well, even if you don't, if you've bought a Sonos -- which is not cheap -- you probably do. So the Sonos is designed around the user's relationship with music.

  • Appliance-like -- this stuff could not be easier to set-up and use. You plug it all in, run an app on your phone, tablet, Mac, or PC, tell the system where all the various bits are, and off you go. Either stream music from anything on your network, or reach out to music services on the internet. It's a music playing appliance. In the book I talk about this being related to "cognitive loading" -- i.e. just how much conscious effort does it take to make the thing work. Using Sonos creates almost no cognitive loading.

  • Intimidation-free -- in the book, this is about security, but here is applies to complexity. There's nothing that can go wrong with this system. It updates itself, it's secure, it's locked down and controlled. That means if a relative buys one, you won't get plagued with support calls.

  • Monochronistic -- it does just one thing, and does it really well. (Monochronistic when we think about post-PC operating systems mean you run one app at a time and jump between them, as opposed to Windows, the WIMP interface of which is polychronistic.)

Goodness

There are plenty of reviews of Sonos, and the idea here isn't to review it. (Although if I did, it's "five stars" all the way.) What examining the Sonos proposition shows you is just how to build something that is either a "good post-PC device", or a "good device for a post-PC" consumer, or both.

Sonos works because it is does one thing fanatically well. The setup portion actually isn't that important -- after all, how often do you set the thing up -- it's the day to day experience that is key.

If you were trying to do this with a PC, it would be a mess. The PC is a flexible multifunctional; device, and not central to your relationship with music. You would have to keep managing the PC to keep it on track in terms of that relationship. ("I've installed an update, now my music won't play.") It's complicated and breaks -- i.e. there's lots of cognitive load and it's not "intimidation free".

Microsoft -- using the design principles they do today of putting the complex, polychronistic, flexible operating system at the centre of everything -- could not have built Sonos, because by important Windows into that mix, you lose the simplicity of a focused design.

Sonos also fits nicely into ubiquitous computing ("ubicomp"). I've written before about how ubicomp informs the post-PC era. A central premise is that technology fades into the background and comes to life when it needs to be used. For most people, music is "aural wallpaper" -- it's not the primary activity that you're doing. It's just something that "decorates" the experience.

The basic proposition of Sonos is faultless. These little, nicely designed boxes fit into the house and just work. There's no fiddling, no mucking about, they are just there when you want them, in the background ready to come to life.

What the engineers have done is focused on one experience for the customer and delivered on that superbly well. They have also abstracted the technology away. Consumers don't care about technology, they don't want it geeky. They just want to put some music on and get on with the ironing.

That's why Sonos wins this game.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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28 comments
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  • Bhahahahaha - philosophy of post-PC

    post-PC is a non-sense concept. Let’s call a Smartphone a Smartphone and a tablet a tablet.

    "Defining what a post-PC device is isn't easy. In my upcoming book, Death of the PC, the first chapter looks at doing just that"

    - Please send me a copy.
    OwlllllllNet
  • Sonos = home music nirvana

    Absolutely agree with you Matt. Sonos is plug and play, delivers a quality sound experience and the app is very intuitive. Also, relative to other integrated home audio, Sonos is competitively priced. Lastly, it just works!!
    jhendrx@...
  • Great Piece

    I really like this whole piece, and it has helped me internalize why the Windows RT is such an epic fail. Who wants to lug windows around everywhere? Nicely done.
    paular8706@...
    • That would be me.

      The most useful app on my Nexus7 is Team Viewer, so I can connect to my Win7 PC when I'm away from it.

      It's an entertaining piece of equipment, but full of apps that are mere shells of full featured programs - basically a toy computer.

      What - a few million apps between Apple and Android, and all but a few are worth a damn. Big deal...You can't even run flash on either.

      Looking forward to a Win8 (NOT RT) tablet with the right hardware, so I don't have to compromise when I'm away from home on short trips.

      Yeah, that'd be me...
      louishelps
  • MS has built Sonos...

    Hey Matt, I mostly agree with your article except for the statement that MS couldn't have built Sonos. Go take a look at a new Ford vehicle with the MyFord Sync 2nd generation system (2013 models or newer). I'm a big Android user, my fiance is a big iPod/iPhone/iPad user... but we both have been impressed with my new Ford that runs the Sync system. Granted this division of MS isn't the traditional MS operating systems division but I think there are pockets within Microsoft working on these "embedded systems" that could be the future for MS if they made it a priority!? And they better.... the current W8 is feeling a lot like Vista! (Yikes for them!)
    Brandt Barlow
    • But that isn't Sonos

      The only commonality is that both play music--One is for the home, one is in a car. One is comprised of mobile and self contained units that can be moved anywhere in the house, the other is hard-wired and integrated into the car. Sonos was a unique product when it came out and MyTouch was a follower--released after the concept was well established by competitors already.

      On another note you may be impressed by the Ford system because it is all you know. I've tried out the MyTouch in a Ford and a UConnect in a Jeep. The UConnect was much better--actually the controls in general on the Jeep were better designed (what Chrysler has done with their interiors in the past few years is miraculous!). UConnect is not made by Microsoft (it is actually made by Blackberry's QNX unit--Fiat has a system called "Blue&Me" that is MSFT based but it is also kind of crappy--I was disappointed to hear that Dodge and Chrysler cars would adopt it in some of its UConnect units--but not in Jeep...yet. WHY GOD WHY!?).

      In any case my point is that Matt is right--MSFT could NOT have built the *Sonos*, and has not yet, despite having built several "post-PC" devices. Sonos led with their product and it is well made and well designed from the start. MSFT is a follower--reactionary--and has not been a leader since it introduced MSBasic and other PC programming languages in the 70s and early 80s. Sometimes they succeed, but they fail as often as not. MSDOS and MSX were reacions to CP/M and proprietary home PCs. Windows was a reaction to MacOS. Internet Explorer was a reaction to Netscape. Windows Phone was a reaction to iOS and Android. MSFT Sync is a reaction to systems like QNX.

      Being a follower is fine--Samsung is a very successful follower. The thing is followers have to be nimble/quick and be able to read the market. Nimble has not described MSFT for a very long time, and never reads the desires of the market quite right the first time. The last time MSFT released a v1.0 product that was "good" AND that the market really desired was BASIC in the 1970s. After that MSFT had to try 2 or 3 times to get it right, and consumers wanted their products mostly becasue they were "compatible" or "affordable", not because they were "the best". If MSFT cannot learn to either become a leader in innovation or learn to follow MUCH faster they are in trouble post-PC.
      Mark Hayden
  • not postPC, always PC

    So yesterday my wife tried to download the new Daft Punk album. "Why don't you try downloading it on your phone", I replied. So we looked at Xbox music and couldn' t find the "buy music" option. Even if we had, her next question was "well how do I get it off my phone onto other things?"... Then I had a thought, let's try downloading on my daughter's new ipad, then she wondered, "uh oh, that means this itunes thingy, does it? " And not wanting to shovel her new album into a black hole, I suggested she just go into the living room, turn on the TV and download via Amazon onto our media centre PC. Which she did. Then she sync'd her phone and she had it on there (2 devices). Then, voila - it showed up on the Surface RT in the kitchen (3 devices and counting). Then I opened my Skydrive and hey - its there too on my phone (4 devices) , 'cause our Music collection sync's to Skydrive.

    So go figure - how in hell do you really operate in this "post PC" world, without a PC ? Am I missing something obvious. It seems to me that sticking something on the PC is always the start point,- in fact, its central to the whole process! Otherwise that brand new Sonos system will be awfully quiet, having nothing to play on it...

    Post PC, that's a good one Matt. I'm still chuckling...
    riccol1966
    • The answer to your question is....

      ...the HOME SERVER. you pretty nearly answered that question anyways. You called your Media Centre a "PC" but it is in fact a prototypical "post-PC" device. It is living-room centric and hooks to a big screen TV like a game console instead of being made to sit on a desk and run office software on a small screen. The name "media CENTRE" connotes a centtral place--like maybe a SERVER?

      Perhaps you have a bit of PC tunnel vision as it is apparent you have drank a lot of MSFT Koolaid (a media centre, a windows phone, a surface tablet, skydrive...). NONE of what you did required a single traditional PC. In fact it doesn't even need MSFT products at all. I do the same thing with Android devices, DLNA based "smert TV" boxes and a Linux server. Others do similar with Apple kit (but as you say, once your music goes into the iTunes black hole your options outside the iDevice ecosystem are severely limited). But the platform/OS/etc. is a matter of taste and can devolve into a religious discussion so I won't go there any further.

      My thought is that the PC will evolve further into a server role. By that I mean server "appliance" style machine. Such a computing device would not normally be connected to any screen, keyboard or mouse--only network and power--and would be always on and would be the hub connecting your personal devices. We are nearly at that point already with all the SOHO grade NAS devices out there--with multi-core ARM and more sophisticated Linux based OSes running them such devices would be suitable for this role.

      These are NOT PCs--they would not be prominently displayed on a desk or table, and would probably not even be in the shelf under your TV. This would be a box perhaps in your utility room, or bolted onto the wall next to the breaker panel where your telephone and cable come into the house. So I think he is right it is POST PC not ALL PC--becuase there need not be a PC at all.
      Mark Hayden
      • Rant all you want

        Its still a PC.
        Huckleseed
        • The PC didn't make it happen

          Skydrive a cloud service made it happen...
          GoPower
      • Disagree...

        The home server? Can't see the clouds for, the, well, clouds?
        robradina@...
  • Your recommedation is a paid ad

    What Microsoft has to do with Sonos. They are totally different businesses. Some zombie might have invaded Matt of 2000 to 2010. Probably Matt might have leased his brain to Mountain View Advertising Company to play paid ads.
    Ram U
  • BTW you can't say Post-PC without saying PC.

    try doing that, you are still failure. Since your brain is leased to Advertising Company, I might have to try it in different way http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_computer

    PC is a generic term, which could be used to anything that has a processor and used by any individual. If your thinking of PC as Windows Computer, then you are totally lost. What a pathetic. An advertising company totally screwed good old engineer.
    Ram U
  • Stop it!

    Will all of you stop this "Post-PC" crap? The PC is NOT dead, nor will it become so in the foreseeable future.

    As to the rest of the blog, it is nothing but an advertisement. I already have all the music devices I need in every room where I want it. Why buy another device(s)? And, by now, most of you should know how I feel about the cloud. I do not want my music, or anything else, stored in the cloud where it may or may not be available at all times, costs me bandwidth to stream, etc.

    Doc
    Doc.Savage
    • Not only is the PC dead..

      It's starting to smell really bad :-).

      Look around on any airplane. You'll only see old people (like me :-) working on laptops. Everyone else has phones/tablets/embedded eReaders etc.

      PC's will still have a place in office work (but less and less of that) - plumbers like me who write the code still need our tools after all.

      But for everyone else PC's - and Windows running on them, are complete overkill. The future belongs to Linux and embedded devices.
      JeremyAllison
  • and Sonos hardware runs on Linux !

    Just going to show that Linux has become the "universal OS" as far as embedded and consumer devices are concerned.

    Disclaimer, I *love* Sonos, I have a boatload of Sonos zones in my house (along with a large Linux-based server to serve the music from, using Samba of course :-).
    JeremyAllison
  • One Simple Task, Simple Interface

    Many tasks, not so simple an interface.

    The only way to make a complicated task simple for the user is for the design to "assume" the most common questions as defaults. From the description, Sonos does this very well. Its interface to the user (which room(s) should it play in, how loud in each room, find something to play on the internet) can be simple, because it only looks for one kind of information (in the several most common standard formats), and only does one thing with it. It is not intended to, nor can it, print sheet music, mix it with a life keyboard or mike, burn it to a CD/DVD, copy it to another file, etc. Nor does it send email or update documents or spreadsheets.

    A PC (or Mac) can do all those things, but it requires more knowledge, naturally, to do them. At least today's PC, unlike mainframes in the past, does not require extensive knowledge about how to do everything you MAY need to do in order to do ONE thing properly. PC's are intended to be a GENERAL purpose tool for "business business," personal business, communication, keeping personal data, etc. Oh, and if you don't have the money for something like Sonos, you can set up your PC, with a bit more effort, to do something comparable to what Sonos does: stream music to speakers more powerful than the ones built into your PC.

    It's a tradeoff between your hardware budget (buy a separate gadget for everything) and your "personal learning" budget (buy apps for a PC, Mac, tablet or smartphone, and learn how to set them up and use them).

    Until something like the Asimovian positronic robot comes along, that has human level AI and can be treated like a human servant (but with Three Laws to keep it from rebelling), this rule will be true: the more things you can do with a tool, the harder it is to learn ALL of the things you want to do with it, and the more attention is required to do a given task. Even a Swiss Army knife requires you to learn which blade is for cutting, which is for driving screws, and which contains the USB thumb drive.
    jallan32
  • for people who don't care about music

    My take from this article is that Sonos is not for you if you actually listen to music closely instead of wanting "aural wallpaper". That sounds like a lot of good, not great, digital audio products. My impression is that many people must be uncomfortable when left alone to think.

    Is my entertainment PC not monochronistic in that it is not used for anything else?
    mswift@...
    • You'd be wrong about the quality. Sonos is for audiophiles.

      One of my Sonos zones (master bedroom) consists of two Play-5's plus a paired Sonos subwoofer. I care a *lot* about music quality (I ripped all my music collection into Flac, not mp3 for this reason, and am looking carefully at 24bit audio - which Sonos doesn't yet do).

      The sound quality from that zone is *amazing*. It's so good I'm thinking of replacing the living room zone (which is a 5.1 Yamaha receiver plus Polk RTiA3's + center speaker + 2 rear speakers + and subwoofer) with a Sonos soundbar + subwoofer + 3 play3's as rear speakers. The Sonos sounds *so* much better than a Bose surroundsound that I relegated the Bose to the childrens playroom audio :-).

      Only my JMlabs speaker systems + custom reveiver and power-amp beat the Sonos on sound quality, and that system cost around 10x the price.
      JeremyAllison
  • I notice you don't mention how it sounds

    This used to be the core value of stereos. I bet it sounds great on 32 KB MP3s. A step up for earbud users -- snort.
    Vesicant