Sonos may have just saved itself / by Mike Hudack

Sonos announced its Sonos One speaker last week. The speaker is significant because it represents a perfectly executed pivot from a radically closed interface strategy to a radically open interface strategy.

For fourteen years Sonos required you to use the Sonos Music Controller to play music on Sonos products. The Controller was and is meaningfully inferior to other music players. Its only redeeming quality is the speakers it talks to.

Sonos did this because the Music Controller created lock-in. Once you bought a single Sonos speaker and used the Music Controller you were unlikely to buy a competing speaker. This is because you'd have to use two methods to play music across your multiple speakers, and this is annoying.

Sonos could get away with this because their speakers were better designed, built and higher quality than competitive speakers.

Sonos' advantage disappeared in June of 2015 when the Amazon echo was released. The power of Amazon's revolutionary interface -- a voice assistant -- nullified the power of Sonos' other differentiating characteristics. The sound quality of an Echo is much worse than that of any Sonos speaker. It doesn't matter. The Echo is easier to use.

I'm sitting in a room with three music players: a record player, a Sonos Play:5 and a Google Home. I'm listening to music on the Google Home because I could do so without reaching for my phone or getting up. "OK, Google, play Simon & Garfunkel."

Many people had this experience and began buying and using voice assistant speakers instead of Sonos speakers. A better interface -- voice -- was winning over every other feature, including sound quality.

It appeared that Sonos was fucked.

Sonos acted rather quickly. In August of 2016 the company added Spotify Connect support. This single change was enough to get me to buy my first Sonos speaker. I had been waiting on the sidelines because of Sonos Music Controller. But Sonos speakers really do sound good, and the convenience of Spotify Connect plus rumors of future Alexa and Assistant support was enough to get me over the line.

In January the company swapped CEOs and leaked that it was working on an Alexa-enabled device.

Last week the Sonos One shipped.

Sonos One at first looks like a complete capitulation. It integrates support for all of the interfaces. Alexa is built in and Assistant and Siri are coming soon. One not only supports Spotify Connect but it even supports AirPlay 2. You'll soon be able to connect directly to a Sonos speaker from Apple Music!

This sacrilege makes sense if you understand the weakness of Sonos' new competitors. Apple, Google and Amazon are formidable but they are ecosystem players.

The HomePod is a $350 investment in iOS, Siri and Apple Music. Echo is an investment in Alexa. Google Home and Google Home Max require long-term faith in Google Assistant.

These are expensive lock-in devices.

Sonos has a new position: the radical choice in interfaces. Sonos One allow me to change assistants, music streaming services and phone operating systems without throwing out all my speakers.

By flipping its positioning on its head in the space of just a couple years Sonos is once again in an incredibly differentiated position. It is once again in a position to win, possibly for another decade and a half.

Radical interface changes of the type Echo introduced typically kill companies. The iPhone killed Nokia and BlackBerry and seriously harmed Microsoft. Sonos has proved itself, so far, to be more nimble and intelligent than any of those companies. It's flipped its model on its head and emerged stronger than ever.

Few things in business are more impressive than this.