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Sonos' future will echo Amazon’s Alexa, says CEO

Sonos' future will echo Amazon’s Alexa, says CEO


Layoffs announced as the speaker company doubles down on its streaming future

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"Our mission is to fill every home with music," writes Sonos CEO John MacFarlane in a new blog post. "I start every day by asking myself how we can do that better." The answer, according to MacFarlane, is a strategy to bring Amazon Echo-like voice control to Sonos speakers and to "double down" on music steaming.

"Alexa/Echo is the first product to really showcase the power of voice control in the home," MacFarlane says. "Its popularity with consumers will accelerate innovation across the entire industry. What is novel today will become standard tomorrow. Here again, Sonos is taking the long view in how best to bring voice-enabled music experiences into the home. Voice is a big change for us, so we’ll invest what’s required to bring it to market in a wonderful way."

Music is emotional and demands immediacy

Music is emotional. It demands immediacy of control to match our whims. And nothing is more immediate than saying, "Hey Sonos, play something happy." As a long time Sonos user, voice control seems like a natural evolution for the product. The company killed its dedicated CR200 remote control back in 2012 in favor of free smartphone apps. But for some, the extra delay at having to fish out and unlock their phones, and then launch the Sonos app tainted the overall experience. Adding rudimentary physical controls on its speakers have helped, including the gesture-driven controls on its latest Play:5 speakers. (The Play:5 also features two disabled microphones meant for future enhancements to TruePlay tuning.) Adding a 7-mic array and far-field voice recognition technology like Amazon did with Echo is one way to perfect the Sonos experience. And once you have mics and speakers in every room of the house, you’re well on your way to creating the infrastructure required for a truly smart home.

Question is, where will Sonos get the underlying voice AI? In my wildest speculation, Sonos, which just added support for Apple Music, would license Siri and become an Apple HomeKit smart home partner. But why would Apple do that when it already has a speaker division called Beats? Apple could, and probably should, build its own version of Echo. For Sonos, the answer's probably as simple as tightly integrating its speakers with the new Amazon Dot, or baking in the Alexa Voice Service as Invoxia did with the Triby.

MacFarlane’s second plank for the future is paid streaming, something Sonos already supports by aggregating access to "all the music on Earth," as its tagline goes. However, the CEO suggests an opportunity for Sonos in an increasingly fractured streaming music landscape. "We believe that listeners will grow increasingly dissatisfied with the solutions they’ve cobbled together for listening at home," says MacFarlane. "Now that music fans can finally play anything anywhere, we’re going to focus on building incredibly rich experiences that were all but unimaginable when we started the company, and will be at the vanguard of what it means to listen to music at home."

It’s not clear what this means yet. Is Sonos building a subscription for subscription music services that lets you play any song you want without requiring mostly overlapping individual subscriptions to Tidal, Spotify, and Apple Music just to stream the latest exclusive from Kanye West or Taylor Swift? Or maybe MacFarlane’s hinting at a future that releases captive Sonos owners from the not-so-great Sonos app experience, letting owners stream music to their Sonos speakers from directly inside the usually superior native apps provided by the subscription music services? I don’t know, but MacFarlane says it’s going to cost money and will require some organizational restructuring to get there.

"We are in the process of letting go some Sonos employees"

"We’re not chasing short-term gains or answering to impatient investors," says MacFarlane. "Rather, we’re making a decision to substantially and confidently increase our investment in the future of music." Changes that will have direct impact on staffing. "The short term – and very difficult – consequence of this decision is we’ve had to make some changes to our team. We do this with a heavy heart, as we are in the process of letting go of some Sonos employees who have played important roles getting us to this point."

Update Mar 10th, 11:38AM ET: Added mention of two disabled microphones on Play:5 speaker.