Ecosystems And Switching Costs

When you reach a certain level in hi-fi or, as it is the case in particular with multi room systems, you are bound by a high level of inter equipment compatibility, your investment is certain to be substantial. This is not really new. What is new, however, is a coupling with so-called digital ecosystems that is so tight that it very quickly becomes a problem.

Let’s for the sake of argument take a house with 5 rooms, or more in line with the zone-term, areas where you listen to music. If some of these areas conjoin or overlap, you need devices in those areas to be in perfect synch. This de facto means that they need to be of the same brand and model family. In areas further from each other, where sound is not likely to spill across, this is less important but still we have come to enjoy a certain level of remoteness; the ability to turn off the bedroom music while cooking in the kitchen. This does not require the same level of compatibility but it does require the devices to abide by the same protocols which pretty much means either the same brand or DLNA conformance. Very few audio systems are strictly DLNA. Most have features that are not specified in the standard or features that the vendor feel should operate differently and are distanced from existing standards.

There are two levels of ecosystems at play here. First there are the compatibility matrix formed by the devices themselves. Very few devices can operate optimally in a mixed environment. A Bluesound cannot tell a Marantz amplifier to power on or switch input, just like a Technics amplifier cannot tell a Sonos system to pause a queue or switch off the Play:5 in the bedroom. The devices are blissfully unaware of each other and as thick as a Jethro Tull record. Surely this is not a catastrophe but it certainly is inconvenient. This means that, out of convenience, we tend to bind ourselves to one ecosystem and by that put our proverbial eggs in one basket. The day Simple Audio was shut down they left their community with entire sound systems starting a death roll. And the thing is that the eggs in this modern basket are much more fragile than, say, a turntable. When the ecosystem dies, the product effectively degrades and ultimately turns to dust. If our 5 rooms had 5 different brands of devices and one brand kicks the bucket or removes an indispensable feature, you can remove that one device at a reasonable loss instead of having to replace the entire system at a considerable cost.

Another ecosystem domain to reckon with these days is the controller operating system. Consider again our fantasy system. Let’s equip our 5 rooms with the same brand of audio streamer and sprinkle in a few extras; some amps and a TV. The amplifier and TV run DLNA for which there are an abundance of more or less reliable apps for iOS, Android, Mac and Windows. The streamers have their own app, which is not available for one of the phone OSes and is incredibly slow on another, excluding two controller types. Unfortunately it is one one of these excluded phones that we find the best DLNA client. Suddenly we find ourselves using two different controllers plus an abundance of old fashioned remote controls. Then one day the OS on our preferred controller device gets a change in conditions preventing the DLNA app from running. The conflicts are legio. I am not mentioning any names. Suffice it to say that this is not entirely grabbed from thin air.

Both ecosystems have a very short life span. It is really quite incredible that nobody protests. I can understand that companies producing equipment are reluctant, unilaterally making their devices compatible with the competition but that doesn’t discount the fact that consumers are the ones carrying the loss here. And to make matters worse, a whole new ecosystem is on its way into the game. Home automation. Very few hi-fi devices allow themselves to be operated from home automation systems. Most that do are only working due to tenacious communities dissecting the protocols used. Not because companies divulge the information freely or comply with available standards. Logitech, or more accurately Slim Devices, tried when they open sourced their Squeezebox software. An open and active ecosystem disregarding the original devices left more or less in a limbo state without software updates.

As with the ability to remotely control devices from afar, we have come to enjoy the pervasive experience audio in every room gives us. The days of yore where we had a stereo in the living room and a transistor radio in the kitchen are long gone. The demand in quality in ambient sound has become increased for most music consumers, while strangely the opposite is true for the central stereo. The main device has become less important. For a great many people even less capable than household stereos were 25 years ago. More people have relatively good ambient sound while very few have barely adequate detail listening devices. High-end audio is probably on the same level as always, and equally frowned upon. But that is a topic for another article.

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