If Echo Is The iPhone Of Connected Home, Then Sonos Is The Blackberry

I wrote a piece for Forbes explaining why I thought the Echo/Alexa has had some of the same disrupting impacts on the smart home industry that the iPhone did on the mobile business. I won't repeat them all in full here (go read it), but the gist of my post was this:

  • The Echo, like the iPhone, is creating a new interaction paradigm for technology (voice with the Echo, touch for the iPhone).
  • The Echo is making the incumbents in the market completely rethink their approaches to market. This is in large part due to their disruptive wedge strategy vs. the Apple/Google old-school mindset of having to create an entire walled garden ecosystem from the bottom of the stack up.
  • The Echo, like the iPhone, isn't only disruptive because of the device itself, but the app and services ecosystem it promises to enable.

All of which is fairly relevant to the big story of last week, the Sonos layoffs. The news was announced in a post by John McFarlane, the CEO of Sonos, where he made it clear he recognized the disruptive impacts of the Amazon Echo/Alexa.

But it was a few days later with this interview in Billboard where it became clear how the company had, for the most part, ignored the Echo/Alexa until fairly recently. 

From the post, this quote:

"I was at the Allen & Co. conference in Tucson last week and everybody there is a Sonos owner and they were asking, "What do you guys think about voice, will that ever be a part of Sonos?" And it became blindingly clear to me that it was important that we step into that conversation. Coming back, the Uber driver asked me about it. He literally overheard the discussion with Joy [Howard], who is our CMO, and Pete [Pedersen], the leader for PR. He got off the phone and said, "Man, you're totally right, I was gonna ask you, How do I integrate my [Amazon] Echo with my Sonos?"  And he had a Play:1 in one room and an Echo in the kitchen and Play 1 in his bedroom. I came back and said we just need to step into this because we're tone deaf if we don't."

This quote really shocked me. I have a bunch of respect for John because he and his team have built what is maybe the single most iconic new consumer hardware brand over the past decade, which is no small feat, but this quote makes clear that Sonos had been resting on its laurels. 

Which gets us back to the iPhone comparison. If Echo/Alexa is the iPhone, this quote from John shows me that Sonos may be the Blackberry, the once-iconic smartphone company (named RIM, or Research in Motion, before it became Blackberry).

Like Blackberry, Sonos has had a dominant market position, not only creating and largely defining a category (wireless speakers), but also owning a huge percentage of the market. As all market watchers know, being on top can cause a company to begin to think they're unassailable. We see it over and over in technology, from Microsoft to Dell to IBM to Blackberry and now Sonos. There is no safe place for those that don't continue to evolve and innovate, and in the era of IoT and connected devices, the innovation cycles are accelerating, meaning companies to reinvent themselves every few years rather than every decade.

Will Sonos catch up? Maybe. They still make great products. Not every consumer will want voice control. And there's still no guarantee that the Echo/Alexa will reach the same levels of dominance we saw with the iPhone.  And heck, they could even partner with Apple on voice control/smart home (or get acquired) and create an equal to Amazon on the connected home front.

But make no mistake: that Sonos waited this long shows the company may someday be viewed as the 'Blackberry of the connected home'. 

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  • Mark H

    Look at the direction the custom integration market has been going to see where low-cost integration will go in the future. People want to share there media, wherever it comes from to all their rooms and devices. The first person to develop a scalable system to share audio and video around a home will be the winner. Control4 does it best right now, but the landscape is changing. There are a few key devices missing that can really expand the capability of the IOT to be really useful. Within two years it really will be a different landscape of vendors and products.

  • Michael Wolf

    @John S – It’s a valid point that Sonos appeals today towards the customer who embraces quality and high-fidelity, while the Echo is more of a multipurpose device. That said, I think the biggest growth in the market today is probably in single-room systems. Sonos – John M – admitted himself the industry is down and they saw growth slow as a result of Echo.

    The comparison is more about Sonsos lack of innovation outside of their core – and admittedly very strong – development around multiroom audio. They need to continue to push that but recognize that there is significant work to be done beyond that otherwise risk being left behind. The large speaker and home theater guys ignored Sonsos for a long time and they made many of them irrelevant. Sonos just needs to take care it doesn’t happen to them.

  • John S.

    I agree they dropped the ball and the quote shocked me as well… (their forums are filled with requests to integrate Sonos with Echo), but… the comparison makes no sense.

    If anything, Sonos fails miserably in communicating their strengths. Sonos is way more than a wireless speaker that can play back synchronized across multiple rooms (no small feat btw, few ‘competitors’ do this). There’s the mesh network (quality doesn’t depend on strenth of your wifi or bluetooth connection), it can be controlled with many devices (none of which need to stream audio to the system, unlike ‘competitors’). Most of all, and why I like my system with 9 components, comparing Echo’s very limited audio streams to Sonos’ wealth of services is nonsensical and let’s not even talk about the quality of the sound (try 2 paired Play:5s and get back to me). I doubt I will replace my 9 device 7 room system with anything else, anytime soon.

    That said, they should really start listening to their fans. While I abhor feature-creep and really appreciate that every old Sonos device I own still works, their development cycle is just too long and support of third party enhancements too restricted.

    PS I also own an Echo and love it but it has many limitations. Always-on voice control was a revelation and I have tried every single hacky solution to integrate the two and failed. Now I’m 2 weeks away from receiving an Echo Dot, which I plan to hook up to the Sonos line-in, so shortly I’ll be able to tell how well the combination of Echo and Sonos works.

    PPS just a fan, I don’t work there or own stock, if there is any.

  • Sean Cotton

    I think that it would be great if Sonos would integrate with Siri, and you could search for music by voice. I read somewhere that the new Play 5 has a microphone that has not been activated yet, so I guess that will be their first step. I sure hope they find some way to let legacy users use whatever new voice technology that they come up with, because you will have some unhappy campers if hundreds of dollars worth of equipment suddenly becomes obsolete.

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