Playing Multi-Room Audio After Sonos

Back in the day, Sonos was the only solution for playing multi-room audio. The company’s innovative mesh networking system meant that you could launch audio on your system and direct it to any of a number of speakers, all throughout your house.

Yesterday, Sonos made an announcement that they will no longer be providing software updates to “legacy” devices. And if you have a system which uses both old and newer devices, you cannot update the software of the newer devices. The reasons for this are obvious: the older devices lack the resources – CPU and memory – to manage newer features. And given the mesh networking system Sonos uses, every device needs to be running the same software.

While the company has not stated what features would need more resources, I suspect that they are going to head toward high-resolution audio, which, as it is in many cases, would actually not offer any real benefits given the hardware used. But this will also prevent older devices from getting updates that may be needed for them to remain compatible with streaming services, if they introduce changes, which is certainly likely over time.

There is a great deal of anger among Sonos users, many of whom have been championing the brand for years, and who have, over time, accreted numerous Sonos devices to provide music in their homes. While Sonos is offering 30% discounts to people so they can upgrade to new hardware, this is seen as an insult by many users who have spent thousands of dollars on their systems with the belief that this was durable equipment. After all, speakers last a long time; but software doesn’t. In addition, the way Sonos proposes to recycle these devices is wasteful. And one person I know pointed out on Twitter that he had hard-wired his family’s home just five years ago, and all of his devices will become obsolete. With a setup like that, it’s not easy to just replace the speakers.

I don’t think it’s impossible for Sonos to offer software fixes so older and newer devices can work together. Older devices would not have access to all the same features, but they should still be able to play music, which really isn’t that complicated. But the company clearly does not want to go that route, which is a shame. This sort of planned obsolescence is not what people expect.

So what’s next for those wanting a multi-room audio system? I have a number of Sonos devices: a Sonos Amp in my office, a pair of Sonos One speakers in my bedroom, and a Sonos Beam soundbar connected to my TV. I don’t use these for multi-room audio – each one is a device for listening in a specific location, and I never play them in sync – but this approach shows the way forward.

When I bought these Sonos devices over the past year or so, I was careful to choose devices that support Apple’s AirPlay 2, which allows you to stream music to one or more devices in sync. AirPlay 2 provides features similar to what Sonos offers, in that you can group devices and have them all play the same music, in sync. While AirPlay is a proprietary protocol developed by Apple, it is available to other companies so they can make compatible speakers and TV sets. (The addition of TVs is recent.) From the Music app on my Mac, or from any app on an iPhone or iPad, I can choose one or more speakers to play my music. You can use AirPlay on a Mac, on Windows (in iTunes), and on iOS or Android devices.

Airplay menu

Sonos’ apps allow you to play music from a local library, or from a number of streaming services. With AirPlay, you stream from your device and control music from each service’s app. So rather than centralize all your playback in a single app, you may need to use more than one app. But you can do the same thing as you can with a Sonos system, and you are not limited to speakers from a single manufacturer. And you can stream to an Apple TV, to which you can connect any non-networked speaker or receiver, offering even more flexibility.

(It’s worth noting that there is a hard limit of about 60,000 tracks; beyond that, Sonos cannot handle your music. It loads the music in your selected folder alphabetically, and, on my iMac, it only shows music up to Pink Floyd, but nothing after.)

While this solution doesn’t help people who have invested heavily in a Sonos system, it is a way forward that has less of a platform lock-in. But given the reach of AirPlay 2 currently, it’s hard to imagine that it will be short lived. The main difference here is that there is no mesh networking requiring all the speakers to have the same software. You can currently stream to AirPlay 1 speakers without any problem, though you can’t use them with the same multi-device sync features. But they still work; they don’t become obsolete because they don’t have the latest version of AirPlay.

What Sonos needs to do is to get their developers to update their software so older devices can work, but with limited features. If not, it’s time to look elsewhere, and the wide range of AirPlay 2 compatible speakers and receivers is a good place to start.

Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May – The Verge

In May, Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products, and they’ll no longer receive any new features. The decision impacts “legacy” devices that are currently part of the company’s trade-up program, including all Sonos Zone Players, the Connect and Connect:Amp, the first-generation Play:5, the CR200 controller, and the Bridge.

“Without new software updates, access to services and overall functionality of your sound system will eventually be disrupted, particularly as partners evolve their technology,” Sonos warned in a blog post today. The company says customers can choose to either keep using these products after support ends — they should continue functioning in the near-term — or replace them with a modern Sonos product at a discount.

Platform obsolescence. While individual devices would continue to work even without software updates, the fact that they integrate into a platform makes this impossible.

I think Sonos is offering users a fair deal, with 30% discounts for upgrades. But it still feels wrong. You can use a 50-year old stereo receiver but you can no longer use something that’s just over 10 years old. (To be fair, though, the Play:5, which is the first speaker that is end of life, does have an aux in jack, so you can run audio from some other network bridge into it.)

Update: It’s worth noting that there is a lot of ire among Sonos users. I follow a Facebook group, and there are a lot of people who bought devices just a year ago that are affected. I also heard from someone on Twitter who had hard-wired a bunch of Sonos stuff in a house, juts five years ago, and it will all be affected. In that case, I update what I said just above; this isn’t a fair deal, this is a catalyst for a class-action lawsuit.

I wonder if this decision is simply because Sonos doesn’t want to do the necessary software development to keep older devices working, or if they can’t. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more about this soon. Sonos users tend to be quite vocal in their appreciation for the company, and that appreciation has quickly changed to anger.

Oh, while I’m at it, I have a bunch of Sonos stuff and I use it only with AirPlay, but the company still doesn’t support music libraries over 60,000 tracks (if you point the Sonos app at a folder containing your music files). Yet in practice, this number is much smaller. When I tried – about five years ago – it only managed to see about 40,000 tracks. This is because a lot of my music library is classical, and has a lot of metadata. The library size is limited by the amount of text that can be stored in a database, and with classical music, you can use fewer tracks because the metadata is often larger. Seriously.

Source: Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May – The Verge

Apple’s Cook says global corporate tax system must be overhauled – Reuters

Everyone knows that the global corporate tax system needs to be overhauled, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said on Monday, backing changes to global rules that are currently under consideration.

The growth of internet giants such as Apple has pushed international tax rules to the limit, prompting the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to pursue global reforms over where multinational firms should be taxed.

The reforms being examined center around the booking of profits by multinational firms in low-tax countries such as Ireland where they have bases – and where Cook was speaking on Monday – rather than where most of their customers are.

“I think logically everybody knows it needs to be rehauled, I would certainly be the last person to say that the current system or the past system was the perfect system. I’m hopeful and optimistic that they (the OECD) will find something,” Cook said.

“It’s very complex to know how to tax a multinational… We desperately want it to be fair,” the Apple CEO added after receiving an inaugural award from the Irish state agency responsible for attracting foreign companies recognizing the contribution of multinationals in the country.

I think Tim Cook sees the writing on the wall, and wants to get out in front of it. Apple has long been the poster child for tax avoidance, but Cook knows this has to change.

While it is certainly complex, one thing is obvious: companies with subsidiaries in countries other than their own should pay taxes on earnings in those countries. Apple funnels all (or most) of its earnings to Ireland; Amazon funnels theirs to Luxembourg. I live in the UK, where Apple paid £3.8 million in taxes on £1.2 billion in sales, and Amazon earned £10.9 billion last year, and paid a paltry £220 million in tax. (That’s all taxes, not just corporate income tax, but including, say, payroll taxes.) That’s 0.3% for Apple, and just over 2% for Amazon, for all taxes; I pay 19% on my business’s earnings.

The company should certainly not be taxed for the full value of what they sell; much of that value is made in their home country. But there should be a reasonable way to calculate the wholesale value of an item, such as an iPhone, and what share of the retail price is profit in the local country.

It’s worth noting that Cook is calling for this overhaul after Apple saved $40 billion thanks to the “GOP’s corporate tax handout.”

Source: Apple’s Cook says global corporate tax system must be overhauled – Reuters

UK publishers losing digital ad revenue due to content ‘blacklists’ – The Guardian

UK newspaper and magazine publishers lost almost £170m in digital revenue last year as technology designed to stop advertisements from appearing next to hard-hitting content, such as shootings and terrorism, also inadvertently blocked them from appearing in some of the most popular stories of the year.

Publishers found many articles related to some of the most well read and therefore commercially valuable stories of the year – on topics ranging from the Rugby World Cup to Game of Thrones – shorn of advertising.

When advertisers run digital campaigns they use keyword blacklists – stocked with trigger words such as “attack”, “death” and “sex” – that automatically stop ads running in potentially problematic stories that feature them.

While publishers have traditionally encouraged the use of such brand reputation protection measures in the digital age, blacklists are ballooning in some cases to as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words, blocking ads from many different stories.

Oh. What a shame. So I guess ad networks that work based on algorithms don’t work as expected. Gee. What a surprise.

One senior executive at a UK media agency, which handles the advertising for numerous household-name brands, cited a case of being asked by a client to create a blacklist comprised of “any negative words”. Another agency executive knows of multiple advertisers who added the word “is” to their blacklists, wanting to avoid having ads appear around material on the Islamic State (Isis) militant group, virtually guaranteeing zero ads appearing on any news sites. Wildman says that the word Manchester is still on many blacklists three years after the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena.

Yes, the stupid is strong too.

Source: UK publishers losing digital ad revenue due to content ‘blacklists’ | Media | The Guardian

Intego Mac Podcast, Episode 118: Your Photos Can Tell People Where You Live

Photos you shoot with your iPhone, and with some cameras, store location data. Sharing these photos on social media may pinpoint your location: where you live, or where you work. It’s easy to remove this data. In the news, we talk about listening in on Skype audio, another Apple – FBI spat about accessing data on an iPhone, Google getting rid of cookies, and more.

Check out the latest episode of The Intego Mac Podcast, which I co-host with Josh Long. We talk about Macs and iOS devices, and how to keep them secure.

The European Union wants all mobile devices on a universal charging standard – TechSpot

As outlined in a recent newsletter posted on the European Parliament’s website, the 2014 Radio Equipment Directive called for a common charger to be developed that would fit all mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers and other portable devices.

The Commission ultimately “encouraged” the industry to adopt change but that hands-off approach has not yet produced the desired results.

The truth is, most decent Android phones have already switched to a unified standard in USB-C. The few remaining stragglers that still use something like micro-USB largely do so for cost-cutting measures. But should such legislation pass, the company with the most at stake would be Apple as its line of iPhones continue to utilize the proprietary Lightning connector.

This is an interesting story. For years, the European Union has been bothered by the issue of multiple cables and chargers needed for different portable devices. For the most part, portable devices, other than those from Apple, depend on micro-USB, that little unevenly-shaped plug you see for portable devices such as Android phones, Kindles, etc. (The most common is a Micro-B plug.) Apple is the exception, with their proprietary lightning connector, which has made Apple a lot of money.

But the EU document discusses “chargers,” not “charging cables.” Is this simply an error on their part? I don’t think they want to normalize the amperage of chargers; I think they are concerned about the cables that get wasted, but also the fact that chargers are provided with most new portable phones and tablets (except those at the low end).

There are a few issues here. First, the lightning connector offers some additional features, so you can, for example, put an iPhone in a dock, or use digital headphones, transfer data using a variety of adapters, etc. And, of course, this is a proprietary Apple technology, so they get licensing fees from any company that makes accessories.

Lately, it’s been clear that Apple is planning to move to USB-C, which has a number of advantages, such as higher data throughput and higher power. Recent iPad Pro models have a USB-C connector. So Apple should welcome this change, but what if the EU wants to standardize on micro-USB? They probably don’t want to, but even if the lightning connector is ditched, I don’t think we’ll see USB-C on all devices. My guess is that it’s a bit more expensive than a micro-USB jack, because of circuitry needed behind it.

Also, USB-C is quite perilous. Different USB-C cables have different capabilities, such as power or data throughput, and it can be quite difficult to know which one you need. And if you have the wrong one, you can actually damage a device.

I have a lot of devices in my home that use micro-USB: my Kindles, batteries for security cameras, chargers for camera batteries (though my Fujifilm X-T3 has a USB jack), and other devices. The fact that I can charge them all using the same cables is practical. Having both micro-USB and USB-C won’t be a problem, and I assume that the EU is only looking at devices like phones.

But the broader question of chargers is probably one that should be addressed. Do we really need to get a charger with each new device? I have lots of Apple chargers in my house, but for people who don’t have extras, should they have to pay another, say, $10 or so when they buy a new phone?

Source: The European Union wants all mobile devices on a universal charging standard – TechSpot

Apple’s MacBook Pro TouchBar and Safari

When I bought a new MacBook Pro last year, I was catching up to a new interface element that had been around for a while, but that I had never used: the TouchBar. This bar replaces the function keys with a set of dynamic “buttons,” allowing you to control certain things on your Mac. You can adjust volume and brightness, and different apps provide different virtual buttons on the bar.

There’s one app where it’s is really useless: Safari. On my MacBook Pro, with Safari frontmost, I have six tabs, but the TouchBar only shows two of them; that’s because the other four are “pinned tabs,” that are minimized at the left of the tab bar. There’s no way to use the TouchBar to access those tabs. (I’ve tried to scale the image so it looks about the same as what I see.)

Touch bar

And even if I did want to use the TouchBar to access different Safari tabs, there’s nothing on the TouchBar that helps me see what the tabs contain. Okay, I can see that the one on the left is Facebook, but what if I have a lot more tabs open?

Touch bar2

I would have expected the TouchBar to display favicons, which would at least give a better idea of which sites are open in each tab. It’s clear that an option to do this would make it a lot more usable.

Intego Mac Podcast, Episode 117: The Year in Apple Security 2019

We look back at the eventful year 2019 in Apple security. In the news, Apple is switching to randomized serial numbers for its products, Apple sues a company over jailbreaking, Firefox has critical vulnerabilities, and more.

Check out the latest episode of The Intego Mac Podcast, which I co-host with Josh Long. We talk about Macs and iOS devices, and how to keep them secure.

HomePod vs. Sonos One Stereo Pair Comparison

I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was this:

What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly.

A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).

In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.

So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.

Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.

So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)

Bedroom

You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)

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How to remove GPS location data from photos on iPhone or Mac

It’s great to have location data stored in your photos. This allows you to sort through your photo library and find all your photos from your last vacation, or from favorite sites you like to visit. For some photos, like that one of the Eiffel Tower, it’s obvious where you’ve taken them. But you may not want people to be able to figure out where all your photos were taken. For example, you probably don’t want location data in photos you’ve taken in your back yard showing up on social media, allowing people to find exactly where you live.

It’s easy to remove location data when sharing photos from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Here’s how.

Read the rest of the article on The Mac Security Blog.