Company / division: Sonos
Sonos is finally jumping on the voice speaker bandwagon, both in terms of Alexa control of existing Sonos hardware via devices consumers already have, and by integrating Alexa and the Google Assistant directly into its speakers. The growth of the voice speaker market has emerged as something of existential threat to Sonos, and it has needed to respond for a while now. The Alexa implementation is really good, allowing users to control Sonos speakers without the awkward syntax required by a lot of third party skills on Alexa. That’s going to be key for making the integration really usable.
On the voice speaker side, Sonos is starting small, with an update to its cheapest speaker at the same price as in the past. I would guess that the same functionality will be coming to the rest of the lineup in the next year or so, but Sonos hasn’t announced this yet. Starting with Alexa integration makes sense, given that it’s the most widely deployed voice assistant in home speakers today, but adding Google Assistant will help broaden the appeal to those familiar with it from their smartphones.
Sonos’s claimed differentiators in this space are quality and ease of use of multi-room audio, agnosticism with regard to assistants, and openness with regard to music services. That leaves Sonos caught in something of a pincer movement between Apple, which will also focus on premium, multi-room experiences, and Google and Amazon, which offer cheaper, more open alternatives. Sonos’s true differentiation is therefore fairly subtle, emphasizing the ease of use of its multi-room functions and likely its price against Apple’s HomePod, at least until it launches voice support across its more expensive speakers. Proving its feature superiority is going to be tough in a retail environment, and Sonos will likely have to lean heavily on its brand and existing customers here.
This product isn’t a huge surprise, and in fact it seems that a lot of Sonos fans (and observers) are actually disappointed in it. To me, it feels like this is the last product from the old strategy at Sonos before it begins embracing voice control and other features it’s been talking about in recent months. It’s a logical counterpart to the Playbar that Sonos already makes for wall-mounted TVs, and is basically the same product in a different shape, to sit under a TV on a stand instead. Sonos is in an interesting and challenging period at the moment where it’s talking about the future but very much still delivering products from the present (and even past). It’s going to have to move fast to avoid being left behind by a whole set of connected and smart speakers from competitors – I suspect there are growing numbers of people who will sacrifice a little audio quality for a whole home audio system they can control with their voices.
Two Sonos Updates – The Verge / Variety (Jan 20, 2017)
Sonos recently got a new CEO, and he’s been communicating with both staff and reporters. The Verge has a mostly intact copy of his internal email to staff, while Variety has an interview with the main himself. The letter to staff is less revealing, though it suggests some broad strokes of the company’s strategy, while the Variety interview adds more unique insight, such as Sonos’s plans to incorporate Amazon’s Alexa into its speakers, a possible IPO, and plans for more of a retail presence. Sonos is in a fascinating space – it was arguably the big standalone home speaker player before Amazon came along with the Echo, and still has the advantage when it comes to whole home audio. But Echo and Google Home offer a big feature Sonos doesn’t, and I think Spence is smart to plan to incorporate both Alexa and potentially other voice assistants. Sonos would still make a fascinating buy for Apple, which already has its products in most of its stores, but both the Echo/Home and Sonos markets could be threatened by an organic entry by Apple into this combined market too.
It must be tempting to make every speaker-related story about Amazon and Echo at the moment, but I think the thrust of this story is off. I just met with Sonos last week at CES, and they’re doing very well – arguably just hitting their stride, with their first brand advertising campaign after many years of word of mouth marketing alone. They recently secured Apple Store distribution and have an interesting partnership with AirBnb. I do think they’ll want to take their current Alexa integration beyond Echo-based control by incorporating microphones into the line, but I don’t see an existential threat here just yet.