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Sonos buys Snips, a privacy-focused voice assistant

Sonos buys Snips, a privacy-focused voice assistant


Sonos plays offense and defense

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Sonos could soon speak another language.
Sonos could soon speak another language.
Image: Sonos

Sonos now owns Snips, a Paris-based “private-by-design” AI voice platform with the intent of making “the voice experience on Sonos even better,” according to a press release announcing the acquisition. The deal is worth approximately $37.5 million, and brings Snips’ 50 employees and intellectual property to Sonos. 

Sonos already offers both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice assistants as options on its smart speakers. So, why does it need Snips? 

Part of the answer can be found in Sonos’ Q4 letter to shareholders:

“We do not plan to replicate the big tech ‘ask anything voice services’ but expect this acquisition will add to our customers’ ease of use and control as we continue to differentiate an end-to-end Sonos experience for our customers. This tailored experience aligns with external research showing that the most popular use for voice assistants is to access music.”

Another part of the answer can be found in comments from Sonos CEO Patrick Spence:

”We are not looking to replicate what general purpose voice assistants offer, instead we’ll be enhancing customer choice, ease of use and control, and privacy as we continue to differentiate the end-to-end Sonos experience.” 

So, Sonos wants a tailored voice solution for music that’s also private (Snips does all its processing on device). Many people want the convenience of voice activation, but shudder at the idea of an always-listening speaker sending conversations back to Amazon and Google where anyone could be listening. It’s one reason why Ikea chose not to include mics in the Sonos-compatible speakers it sells.

An always-on smart speaker that only processes music data locally could be an easier sell.

Here’s a good demonstration of “Hey, Snips” in action. It shows how Snips can process large vocabulary use cases, such as music catalogs, on Sonos hardware without resorting to cloud access:

Sonos is obsessed with “time to music,” or how long it takes to translate an urge for a song into it playing on your Sonos speaker. Acquiring Snips gives the company more control over that metric when voice is used. It also mitigates the risk of losing voice control should Amazon or Google — who compete with Sonos in smart speakers — pull their agreements to provide voice services for whatever reason.

Sonos isn’t alone in its quest for a specialized voice assistant. The BBC is working on “Beeb” to better facilitate access to its services, and even Cortana is being refocused on Microsoft experiences.