It has long been known as a benchmark for quality multi-room audio in the home but recent developments at Sonos suggest that the luxury connected speaker manufacturer is going through a rocky period. The company has announced a round of staff lay-offs this month as it looks to pursue a slightly different direction for its business.
Key to this new vision will be voice control, which Sonos’ chief executive John Macfarlane has made clear is the company’s primary ambition, along with increased support for streaming platforms:
“We know the future is one where paid streaming and voice control play significant roles, and we’re committed to running a sustainable, profitable business so that we can fund innovation in these and other areas for decades to come […] voice is a big change for us, so we’ll invest what’s required to bring it to market in a wonderful way.”
Should current users be worried?
Sonos has seen its dominant position in the connected home market come under threat by the rise of low-cost competitors such as Google’s Chromecast Audio and Amazon’s Echo family. While neither device is capable of the quality Sonos offers, the technological clout of these tech giants, coupled with their household ubiquity, means that Sonos needs to remain head and shoulders above its competition in order to survive.
If anything, Macfarlane’s statement plays down just how big a challenge Sonos faces if it is to develop a coherent voice control platform. It faces two clear, if challenging, routes forward: develop its own proprietary system – an approach which is both labour- and cost-intensive – or else partner up with the likes of Microsoft or Apple and incorporate their voice recognition systems into the Sonos platform.
While finding a voice software partner is the ideal scenario, it is conceivable that current customers might need to reinvest in new equipment at some point down the line in order to continue to derive maximum benefit from their Sonos system. Regardless of which way it chooses to go, a brand new generation of Sonos hardware seems likely, unless the speaker manufacture can engineer a device that brings voice recognition to its legacy systems.
Pain before pleasure
For Sonos, this shift in direction is definitely the correct decision. Voice recognition is becoming seen as a particularly user-friendly method for smart home control, considering that it eliminates the need for a myriad of remotes or dozens of keypads dotted around the home. If Sonos plays its cards right, this could be the moment where the company truly comes into its own and sets its stall out to become the backbone of the connected home.
With a well-deserved reputation for quality multi-room audio delivery, it is not inconceivable that Sonos might increase its scope way beyond simply being an audio-only platform and instead become the premium control system for the discerning connected residence owner. With that in mind, this overhaul appears to be a risk that is well worth taking.