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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Amid layoffs, Sonos seems to embrace Alexa

Sonos Play:5 has two (deactivated) microphones.

When Amazon announced the Echo Dot, I wondered if it might connect Amazon’s services to Sonos’s line of wireless speakers. That may yet happen—I think—maybe? Today Sonos CEO John Macfarlane announced in a blog post that the company is laying off employees, focusing on streaming music, and embracing a voice-controlled future. Maybe?

Macfarlane’s post is nearly 1,000 words long, but it’s short on specifics. The first few paragraphs detail Sonos’s design choices and the change in the music market before alluding to the layoffs as “short term - and very difficult - consequence” of “increas[ing] our investment in the future of music.”

In terms of that investment, Macfarlane writes, “As we look to the future there are two big areas that we’re leaning into: paid streaming services, and voice control.” Since Sonos has always supported streaming, I’m not entirely sure how the company needs to “lean into” it. He writes:

Now that music fans can finally play anything anywhere, we’re going to focus on building incredibly rich experiences that were all but unimaginable when we started the company, and will be at the vanguard of what it means to listen to music at home. This is a significant long-term development effort against which we’re committing significant resources.

Then there’s the most interesting bit, about services that use voice control:

We’re fans of what Amazon has done with Alexa and the Echo product line. Voice recognition isn’t new; today it’s nearly ubiquitous with Siri, OK Google, and Cortana. But the Echo found a sweet spot in the home and will impact how we navigate music, weather, and many, many other things as developers bring new ideas and more content to the Alexa platform.

Alexa/Echo is the first product to really showcase the power of voice control in the home. Its popularity with consumers will accelerate innovation across the entire industry. What is novel today will become standard tomorrow. Here again, Sonos is taking the long view in how best to bring voice-enabled music experiences into the home. Voice is a big change for us, so we’ll invest what’s required to bring it to market in a wonderful way.

It sounds to me like Sonos is planning to partner with Amazon, but this doesn’t seem to be that announcement. It’s unclear if there’s room for deal with Apple, Google, and Microsoft, too. It’s unclear if Sonos wants to built its own Alexa equivalent—the Play:5 speaker already has microphones, which are currently unused—or just let the Amazon Echo control Sonos equipment.

So, a lot of questions, a lot of words, and not a lot of answers. After some time with the Echo and Sonos speakers in my house, I can see how a connected home with voice control and good speakers is something that I want. Right now I’ve got a lot of the pieces of this future system, but they largely don’t talk to one another. Will Sonos make this easier by cutting deals with other companies that already have voice-control tech, or are they going to try to reinvent the wheel? I asked Alexa, but she wouldn’t tell.

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