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Wi-Fi might fix wireless speakers this year

Wi-Fi might fix wireless speakers this year

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One of the big tech mysteries over the past few years is why it's been so difficult for companies to make wireless speakers that can play music in sync, so one song can be blasting throughout different rooms of a house. It's a problem that's been solved most famously by Sonos, but Sonos' solution is expensive. And it doesn't work with speakers made by anyone else.

Finally, hopefully, possibly, we may have a solution.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is announcing plans to begin certifying a Wi-Fi feature called TimeSync, which will allow wirelessly connected devices to stay perfectly in sync. The group believes there are quite a few applications for this, but the highlight for now is speaker systems.

This supposedly lets any company do what Sonos does

According to Kevin Robinson, the Wi-Fi Alliance's marketing VP, TimeSync will let companies easily build a speaker that can play music in sync with any other Timesync-enabled speaker, even if it's made by a different company. The result, theoretically, will be a wide variety of wireless speakers, with the potential for speakers that cost much less than what a Sonos system costs. (Sonos' cheapest speaker is $199.)

Whether companies will be excited about the ability to create a shared ecosystem of speakers — rather than locking people into their own systems — is an open question, but the fact that the Wi-Fi Alliance is announcing TimeSync certification plans suggests that its members (basically the entire tech industry) are in favor.

"Clearly there's a view that there's a need for broader interoperability for this particular capability and that can drive broader success in the market, a richer ecosystem, more consumer choice," Robinson says. "I think it's a case where sometimes it's a natural progress from proprietary to standards-based broad interoperability, and you can expect now that with TimeSync people will differentiate in other areas."

Products are expected around the end of the year

Robinson says TimeSync will be useful for other types of media devices, including Blu-ray players, set-top boxes, and even headphones (though headphones seem unlikely, given Wi-Fi's more demanding power requirements and headphone companies' preference for Bluetooth). TimeSync could also be used for car infotainment systems, Robinson says. So a vehicle could, for instance, use Wi-Fi to stream a movie to displays on the back of each headrest.

The technology is also being pitched as a solution for synchronizing cameras and microphones while recording, collecting data in industrial settings, and even synchronizing machinery.

New hardware will be required to support Wi-Fi TimeSync. The first Wi-Fi chips supporting it are supposed to begin rolling out in the middle of the year, and Robinson says consumer products should follow sometime around late 2017 or early 2018.

Because it's only a feature, and not a new generation of Wi-Fi, TimeSync can be included as part of new 802.11ac routers and devices, or in any standard that follows (be it 11ad or so on). While it might be uncommon at first, Robinson says it'll likely become a standard feature over time. "You should expect broad silicon support in 2017," he says.