Barely two hours after the stage lights dimmed at Sonos’s product launch event in New York last week, the speaker company’s products had yet another new competitor. The Google Home Max, a high-quality speaker and just one of several smart gadgets announced later that day, may be Google’s voice-powered answer to Apple’s HomePod and Amazon’s new higher-quality Echo, but it also takes aim the wireless home audio turf long dominated by Sonos.
It’s not the first time the 15-year-old wireless home audio company has felt tech giants inch closer to its territory. The successful 2014 launch of the Amazon Echo–despite its lower-quality audio and lack of support for multi-room playback–seemed to catch Sonos (along with many others) by surprise. The following year, the company announced a round of layoffs, heightened its focus on paid streaming music services, and vowed to add voice control to its line of speakers.
Despite the proliferating threats (from much bigger companies, no less), Sonos doesn’t seem panicked. That’s because even as titans like Google and Amazon vie to become its newest competitors, those companies—along with many others—are also forging another relationship with Sonos: Partners. That might seem odd. But as the voice-controlled smart speaker war of 2017 kicks into high gear, Sonos is hoping to set itself apart with a new strategy: It’s becoming a platform. By the end of this year, Sonos says it expects to add 50 new developer partners (including many smart home products) to its platform. In 2018, it will open things up to all developers.
“You have no idea what people are going to build,” says Antoine Leblond, VP of software development at Sonos. “When Apple opened iOS, the first thing people made was the fart app.”
While it may be tempting to envision high-fidelity, multi-room fart gags (and an open developer platform certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility), the more practical scenarios likely involve developers connecting Sonos to other smart home devices and coming up with creative new ways to pipe music throughout one’s home. Perhaps your connected doorbell can be amplified in different rooms so you don’t miss a package delivery (and maybe it plays a song–would “Ring My Bell” be too much?—in lieu of the classic ding-dong sound). Maybe your speakers can sync with your lights, or a software developer might make a new alarm clock app that uses your Sonos speakers to fill your bedroom with sounds a bit more soothing than the iPhone marimba chime. For now, the details of the software development tools and options Sonos plans to offer are limited, but it’s easy to imagine some of the possibilities.
However things may eventually evolve, the early days of Sonos’s platform are focused primarily on enabling partnerships with music services and voice-control partners.
The Sonos One speaker announced by the company last week, which will ship with Alexa voice control built in, is its first foray into voice-controlled hardware. And for people who already own Sonos speakers, a new integration with Alexa devices like the Echo and Echo Dot brings Amazon’s voice control to the whole line of Sonos speakers as well. For now, Sonos’s Alexa integration is in beta, and thus has its limitations (it doesn’t yet support voice-controlled playback via Spotify, for instance, although the company says that’s coming very soon).
Setting Itself Apart By Offering Choices
The voice control ambitions of the Sonos One won’t stop with Alexa. Next year, Sonos will support Google Assistant voice control as well. So even as Sonos’s products and the tech giants’ smart speakers start to resemble each other more and more, Sonos is hoping to set itself apart by giving customers something bigger companies often won’t: Choices. In this case, that means a choice of one’s preferred voice control service (rather than being locked into one). But that’s clearly just the start.
The company is also adding AirPlay 2 support to its speakers, allowing customers to bypass Sonos’s proprietary app for queueing music on its system (and also stream a much wider selection of audio beyond music services). This might seem like a strange thing to tout in an age when Bluetooth speakers allow us to stream any sound from any Bluetooth-enabled device. But Sonos, with its own method of piping multi-room audio over Wi-Fi and a focus on high sound quality, has always turned up its nose at Bluetooth, much to the chagrin of some customers.
“We had a very closed experience, frankly,” says Leblond. “We’ve now moved to a world where now people want a lot of different mechanisms for being able to control their Sonos systems. It’s all about just fitting into people’s lives.”
For Sonos, it’s also about fending off competition that seems to grow–well, in this case, literally by the hour. The competitive rationale for giving users more choice and freedom is what drove Sonos to build a developer platform in the first place. Last year, it worked with Spotify to add the ability to stream music from directly within the Spotify app (just as it had done in 2013 with the much less popular Google Play Music app). With that experience fine-tuned and the underlying development platform complete, Sonos is now ready to expand native streaming support to more music apps, starting with Tidal, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. Again, it’s seemingly a no-brainer, but this isn’t how Sonos has worked traditionally: To control music on the system, you had use Sonos’s own app, which connects to multiple music services. The Sonos controller app is still alive and well (in fact, it just got a significant redesign, amid all the other product news announced Tuesday); but it’s quickly becoming just one of many ways to control Sonos.
The Allure Of Being Agnostic
By opening up its platform, Sonos is aiming to become a more agnostic and flexible sound system for the home—and, it hopes, offer a stark contrast from the similar-looking speakers now being peddled by deeper-pocketed companies. Enticed by those super-affordable Echo gadgets? Go for it, but you can only use Alexa (which is, unsurprisingly, optimized to work best with Amazon’s music service). You want a HomePod? Great. You’ll have to play by Apple’s (and Siri’s) rules and stomach its limitations. Eyeing a Google Assistant? Same deal (although, to its credit, Google has moved quickly to make its voice-control tech available to third-party hardware makers). With Sonos, you can pick and choose your music services, control mechanisms, and whatever else developers start cooking up. And more often than not, it will sound better.
This is by no means a recipe for slam-dunk success. After all, Alexa is a platform too, with thousands of integrations. And Apple’s consumer footprint and marketing prowess alone can make it a threatening competitor. But as the AI-enabled smart speaker space heats up over the next few years, Sonos is hoping to protect its turf using a unique blend of sonic quality, flexibility, and user freedom. It’s a compelling enough message for consumers. It’s just a question of how easily they’ll hear it.