The future wasn’t exactly burnished bright for Sonos back in March this year. Its whole-house audio system was coming under threat from established marques like Bose and new players such as Amazon, whose Echo brought the concept of voice-enabled speakers to the masses. Seeking a new approach, Sonos took the drastic decision to lay off a number of staff and re-pivot its activities to better fit the modern, streaming-first approach that consumers now typically prefer when it comes to music consumption.
This realignment now appears to be paying dividends: at a Manhattan event on 30th August the home audio provider unveiled a rapidly different direction, revealing a number of partnerships that give it a foothold in voice recognition, increased support for streaming platforms and – for the first time ever – formal relationships with a number of connected home manufacturers.
Connecting up with the home
Sonos has typically tried to remain aloof from the smart home, refusing to get its hands dirty and work closely with brands to create tie-ins between its platform and theirs. This hasn’t stopped such links existing – there are several companies who have created ‘unofficial’ interaction with Sonos using its Universal Plug and Play compatibility – but up until now only Savant, Control4, and Qivicon were allowed to integrate Sonos into their control systems in a more formal manner.
This has all changed, seemingly; at its Manhattan event, Sonos announced that a comprehensive API and partner programme, with Crestron, Lutron and iPort joining the others as fully-fledged partners able to natively integrate Sonos into their own control interfaces. Crestron, in fact, has gone one further, promising a user experience which is ‘100% pure Sonos’, so that users won’t lose any functionality by accessing their music through the Crestron app.
Establishing formal partnerships in the smart home sector is a long overdue move for Sonos, which has long been situated on the edge of the intelligent residence without necessarily making it easy for others to work with it.
For existing homeowners already using Sonos, it’s unlikely that much will change. The company’s decision to finally start playing ball is a little like building a stable for the horse after it has bolted; many CI manufacturers have long supported Sonos, just not in a way that was officially recognised by Sonos itself. Clearly, this new partnership favours those who are already on board, but it doesn’t appear that non-partners that integrate using ‘unsanctioned’ methods are going to lose their ability to connect to the Sonos platform. As a statement from the company to CEPro explains:
“[Sonos currently has] no plans to deliberately impact existing solutions that are not supported, but the key is that they’re currently not supported.”
The voice recognition abilities of the Echo significantly undermined the direction Sonos was headed in; its answer has been to accept that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them. Working closely with Amazon to develop a tie-in with the Echo means that Sonos gets to ride the same wave, while also giving its existing customers the ability to add an Amazon device and immediately have the benefit of voice control for music around the house. As this link is built using the Alexa Voice Service SDK, there is a distinct possibility that future Sonos hardware will come with Alexa built in for an even easier user journey.
While this is a smart, cost-effective solution for Sonos’ voice control issues – neatly sidestepping the significant outlay that it would need to develop its own technology – the full benefit for users will rely largely on Amazon’s ability to roll its smart speaker series out beyond the United States.
Currently, this alliance is great for US customers but not of much use to anyone else. Should the likes of Google Home reach a global audience more quickly than the Echo, then it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that Sonos might start supporting any number of voice control interfaces – which would be a very positive, open-minded step indeed.
Even US homeowners with both Sonos and Echo hardware in their homes might be in for a wait until they can benefit from this partnership: an invite-only beta doesn’t start until October, with a full consumer roll-out not expected until next year.
Synchronising with Spotify
The Sonos platform is founded on music, so it’s no surprise that it has extended its embrace of third party platforms to include streaming services. Spotify will be the first to benefit from this, with users able to control the music playing out over their Sonos speakers through their Spotify app for the first time, using the music library’s Connect interface.
More of these can be expected in the coming months – Pandora, Apple Music, Napster all likely to have some kind of direct control from music apps – yet it is surprising that it has taken Sonos so long to get in on this game, particularly since the ultra-budget Chromecast started offering Spotify Connect functionality back in October 2015, almost twelve months ago at time of writing.
What does all this mean for Sonos owners?
In the immediate future, those with Sonos in their connected homes won’t see a huge shift in the way that it works. The user experience might well become more streamlined over the coming months – particularly for those that sign up for the public beta – but the big changes won’t be felt until 2017, when more of these promised link ups are set to become a reality and Sonos begins to fulfil its promise to become a more significant part of the connected home.