Obsolescence and "sunsets" for musical instruments

As always, mods, if this is covered somewhere else, please move it.

Today, I received an announcement that the Sensel Morph was no more. It’s a really striking contrast with the approach that’s been discussed in the Mutable Instruments thread.

Here are a couple quotes from Sensei about their “sunset” plan:

Will the SenselApp continue to work on my computer after July 2022?

There will not be any new releases or support after July 2022. After that, we cannot guarantee that the SenselApp will continue to work on new operating systems.

Will there be any more firmware or software updates?

No, there won’t be any more updates.

Will the software and firmware be open-sourced?

Unfortunately, no. As a technology company, our livelihood is in the intellectual property of our products. The Morph software and firmware contain proprietary processes that would compromise that IP.

We did explore this option, but even providing the most elemental operation - the means for communication between the sensor array and the MCU - would make public things that Sensel needs to keep private in order to exist.

The SenselApp similarly contains proprietary code that cannot be isolated without a ground-up rewrite.

Can I load firmware from a local file?

No.

Now, I’m actually fine with companies changing direction and/or stopping making stuff. But this basically means that once operating systems update, people will lose basic functionality. This has always been an issue with software, but it’s very disappointing to see in app-dependent hardware.

I realize not everything can be open source, but if an instrument is going to be abandoned, its users should be able to use it as intended for as long as it works. Third parties should be able to repair so long as there are parts. Roger Linn has this approach with the Linnstrument, and obviously, Mutable Instruments does too.

My own approach to purchasing hardware is not to buy anything that has to have an app to work.

People often talk about obsolescence as if it’s inevitable like aging. But obsolescence is something that is actively produced. Things can be made that will outlast the people who made them. It’s too bad that the music tech world doesn’t make this a higher priority.

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Good, they’re making sure that I won’t be interested in any of their future products.
Feels wasteful and even disrespectful for some reason.

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I got that email too, and my favorite part was the blowout sale on the remaining stock of overlays. Make sure your new paperweight has got the dopest skinz before it’s too late!

The morph was a cool idea that had a lot of potential. But it sure always felt like a side project. I suppose this is confirmation.

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uhhhhh… a ton of those methods are disclosed in your 30+ patents
maybe don’t patent your methods if you need them to stay secret in order to do business

edit: plot twist, they’ve had a relatively open API all along (did they forget?)

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Oh no—big fan of the Morph, this is sad. I didn’t get an email!

IMO, the worry with loss of support is not so much the PC software (the custom layout editing can probably be reversed, given enough time and effort) it’s going to be no enhancements to the firmware (was really hoping for arbitrary non-rectangular zones at some point) and no repair/replacement of the hardware. Folks have built Morphs into art installations and kiosks, and there’s not really any direct replacement on the market.

As disappointing as this is, it doesn’t look like anything will prevent the existing Morphs from continuing to work as wired controllers with the existing firmware/layouts for as long as the hardware lasts. All the modes are class-complaint, I believe. Documenting the battery removal procedure was a nice touch.

I got that email too, and my favorite part was the blowout sale on the remaining stock of overlays. Make sure your new paperweight has got the dopest skinz before it’s too late!

This, but unironically, as the kids say. :smile: I did pick up a couple skins I didn’t already have, for research purposes if nothing else.

(I also don’t think the Morph is suddenly a paperweight!)

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I don’t think it will be an instant paperweight either. It’s the long term that disappointing, and that that was never a consideration in the design. I forgot to add that I don’t have a morph, so it’s not a personal complaint (though I have been burned this way in the past).

I’m only singling out Sensel because they are part of a bigger trend. It’s basically one of the ugly practices of the computer and peripherals industry but for music tech. It bothers me.

That said, I’m sure I’ll be seeing Morphs for awhile.

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According to their email they are now making touchpads for Microsoft and Lenovo laptops…

Sensel’s technology is currently being used in the haptic touchpads of Lenovo’s X1 Titanium Yoga and Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio, and will be featured in several other models in the near future. We’re thrilled to enable the next generation haptic touchpads for Windows laptops, and to get our tech into the hands of millions of users.

It makes me think that the Morph just isn’t of any further commercial interest to them. They probably sell only in the hundreds or thousands of these a year.

Other manufacturers have end of life policies that ensure a five year support promise from the manufacturer for their hardware, such as Avid with their recently discontinued S3 control surface. Sensel is treating the Morph as more of a cheap toy, disposable without much concern. I think Avid is responding to California legal requirements to provide five year support. I wonder why Sensel is not considering that? It is a California company.

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Oh I don’t either. I was just dunking on them because, for whatever reason, the way they chose to handle the discontinuation really got under my skin. A lot of the tone of that email was in poor taste, in my opinion. Hopefully these little things are in studios (and not landfills) for a good many years.

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Here’s the speedy reply to my email to Sensel support (from their FAQ):

Mark Rosenberg (Sensel)
May 6, 2022, 17:56 PDT

Hi Douglas,

Thank you very much for your honest feedback. We are genuinely sorry about the bad news — please trust me when I say it’s not at all what we wanted.

The good news is that the Morph works well on Windows 11, macOS 12, and iOS 15, and we don’t anticipate that it will have any compatibility issues anytime soon. If however, down the road there are compatibility issues, we will do our best to address them then, if we can. We just can’t guarantee anything, and want to be 100% clear about that upfront.

Hope you understand.

Kind regards,
Mark

There are clearly legal reasons they are stating that they won’t be supporting the Morph after July. But they will do why they can with no guarantees, according to Mark. I hope they do. It looks like the Morph and it’s Kickstarter campaign helped Sensel get started!

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but couldn’t they just at least release the protocol or maybe put a final update where it is possible to put sensel in „raw” mode where it just sends data from the sensors, describe that raw protocol and call it a day? Even this I think would help a lot as it would enable people to write drivers on top of that. I have MyoBand which is not supported anymore, but due to Myo open sourcing protocol and someone writting python lib to communicate with it through Bluetooth it still is usable despite original firmware not working
Maybe I am naive, but I dont think it would be that much work to not alienate users without compromising the IP, but of course this wouls require some investment into product they dont want to support anymore

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That’s always going to be the trouble with digital electronic instruments or software isn’t it? At least analogue gear can be kept alive for decades by a good tech, modulars, outboard etc. Hopefully my acoustic guitar will still be fine for people to play in another century.

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For digital instruments without need for specific computer drivers, you may be able to purchase an equivalent microprocessor if the old one is fried, and load the publicly available firmware to that one again, in case the manufacturer hasn’t specifically wanted to make it hard to do so. I guess, though, that that’s also one reason to advocate open-sourcing things and thinking about your IP so that that actually makes sense business-wise at some point in the life cycle of a product - it does wonders to longevity when the source code and/or “blueprints” are available.

(Linnstrument was mentioned before as an example - they don’t open source the custom hardware so if the sensors go AWOL you’ll probably need Linn to be around selling new ones or someone to reverse-engineer it - but the firmware is completely open so digital / control side is fixable and modifiable. Mutable has both open hardware and firmware as is evident from the flood of clone modules. A lot of vintage home computers from the '80s are still alive and kicking, and new peripherals being made by hobbyists, despite support having ended in the '80s or '90s. And one of my old faves https://surge-synthesizer.github.io/ from the current Bitwig guy came to mind purely on the software side - it was open sourced, and now lives “for ever”.)

And on the other hand, complex analog devices without service manuals or with very elaborate custom parts can still be repaired, but sometimes with a lot of pain, grief and reverse engineering. I guess most vintage synths and studio gear has stayed alive so easily because they were professional products for which service manuals with full schematics were routinely provided - a thing that isn’t given these days.

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This! Linnstrument is protected by patents AND open source.

Edit:
Seen many negative replies here.
Businesses should think more about regarding obsolescence and their brand value. Here is another example:

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This is a wise stance, I feel. Same goes for any audio software that doesnt use the internet but still needs to be online to work.

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if someone might wish to shift to a broader discussion

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This reminds me of a very similar situation with a precursor to the Sensei Morph.

Over a decade ago JazzMutant folded and my two Lemur OSC touchscreen devices started their journey toward become irrelevant abandonware. These cost six times more than the Morph though!

These were amazing interfaces and their glass touch screens were building-site proof industry standard that could be played with sweatiest of hands live. Attach an ethernet cable to your computer and you had instant OSC control within Reaktor or Max.

The irony was that their whole marketing approach was about longevity. They lasted five years and then refused to make the software open source. I’m think I’m still angry at the nearly €4000 “investment”.

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From my experience with the Sensel Morph (I own one) the software they provide is already quite bad so it’s surprising and disappointing that this is the finality of the thing.
I doubt this is a decision was made over night and it’s sad that seemingly no effort has gone into ensuring the lifespan of this device is more than a few years at best. Can’t help but to feel like this is simply lazy.

EDIT: Ok, saying that it’s lazy is perhaps a little much, I’m sure it’s a difficult problem especially considering that the same tech is likely used for their much bigger vendors, but it’s certainly neglectful at best.

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I was an early backer. If you think the sw is bad now, being on the first release was truly disheartening.

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The issue is that software, and software-complement hardware (i.e., particularly things that rely on interfacing with specific software, like controller hardware) is a mid point been a service and a good, often closer to the former. It’s hard for producers to offer potentially indefinite service funded by a one off payment … and funding service based on subsequent sales is structurally similar to a pyramid scheme

Arguably they’re only services because the technology “develops” (changes) rapidly - e.g. frequent breaking changes to major OSes - themselves services - driven by changes in computer hardware, computer security, computer use…

What helps? I can think of: standards (eg MIDI), backward compatibility technologies (eg Windows compatibility modes, Reaper’s 32bit bridge) or at least schematics/service manuals/ open sourcing (Monome, Mutable, etc) - but all of these cost the developer work (or, as sensel claim, opportunity cost), and don’t directly add sales

I guess no object, or object producer, can persist infinitely - (unless ship of Theseus style it is fully reparable) - I don’t know how long I expect musical instruments to last, but with Sensel this feels too short?

Until there’s good regulation around this, I guess the best I can do is try to support manufacturers with a considered / sustainable approach to this stuff, and avoid those displaying no consideration of late lifecycle… the “infinite now”

(Relevant John Berger - ‘Just as capital is compelled continually to reproduce itself, so its culture is one of unending anticipation’)

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Great topic, we need to talk about this. Thanks for opening.

→ Martina Leeker, Irina Kaldrack (eds.). 2015 There is No Software, There are Just Services. Meson Press, Open Access :unlock:

Book blurb

Is software dead? Services like Google, Dropbox, Adobe Creative Cloud, or Social Media apps are all-pervasive in our digital media landscape. This marks the (re)emergence of the service paradigm that challenges traditional business and license models as well as modes of media creation and use. The short essays in this edited collection discuss how services shift the notion of software, the cultural technique of programming, conditions of labor as well as the ecology and politics of data and how they influence dispositifs of knowledge.

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