The history of music listening experience is also a great lesson in disruption. When I look at my collection of music and devices, I see the evolutionary history of disruption in music. I recently stumbled upon Google home and spent some time with it. It appears to me that this is the next disruptive event in music listening experience. And now that Apple has announced its HomePod, I really worry about Sonos.
Let me explain.
Evolution of Music Listening Experience
The Early Years
In the early years of music, the dominant sound recording format was a vinyl record. Although it was quite some time back, this format has never really died. When I recently, visited Crate & Barrel, I saw a few retro looking turntables.
Later on, cassettes became the dominant format. When I was growing up, I listened to music using tapes. Back then, music was scarce. My friends used to lend me their cassettes or record one from radio or their songs. The problem with the recording format was that it was not easy to get to songs you liked. One had to rewind and forward a lot to get to what you wanted to listen.
Early on, you could only listen to the cassettes at home or in the car. But then, the Walkman emerged and allowed you to take your music on the go. It was a breakthrough for Sony who popularized this innovation.
The CD Technology and its impact
Around 1982, the Compact Disc (CD) technology emerged, and it revolutionized music listening. Although the technology was available, it was too expensive for the mass market. By the 1990s, CDs became commonplace. CD players allowed you to listen to hi-fidelity music and access tracks you wanted to hear. I remember buying a six-CD changer so that I didn’t have to keep changing the CDs. What a brilliant functionality it was back then!
The MP3 Revolution
The next significant change was the emergence of MP3 format. CDs contained digital files but if you copied them to a computer it used to take up a lot of space. Back then hard drive space was at a major premium. I remember my first PC had a total of 512MB hard disc space! But the emergence of MP3 format changes music listening forever. MP3 technology compressed music files and allowed you to store more music in a disc drive. To take advantage of the MP3 format, MP3 players emerged, and soon after the iPod was born.
With an MP3 player, you could take your entire music library with you! That was revolutionary. Moreover, you could create custom playlists so that you never have to search for music again. It was sheer freedom.With an MP3 player, you could take your entire music library with you! That was revolutionary
Soon after MP3 players became commonplace, streaming services began to take hold. They gave you access to all the music in the world (almost). That meant that you were no longer limited by your music library. For a small sum, you could access all the music in the world, all the time.
The saga of discontinuous change in music industry continued. I recall walking into a Best Buy store in 2004 to witness the next big thing. The purpose of my visit was there to get a dock for my iPod. And that’s when I came across this cool new device!I recall walking into a Best Buy store in 2004 to witness the next big thing.
The salesperson explained the device to me. It was called Sonos, and it was a multi-room, wireless music system. You could sit on your couch and search a song on a remote controller and play it on a nearby speaker. Wirelessly! That was freedom on steroids! I started buying Sonos speakers, and now they surround me everywhere in my home.
The Innovation Trajectory in Music
If you step back and look at this evolution of music listening experience, you will notice two things. First, there has been a great attempt at improving the quality of the sound. A lot of innovation took place in this direction. Second, innovation has also been focused on user freedom from a tedious workflow. The series of activities you need to undertake to listen to music has been going down over time. This is what I mean by freedom.
Another key trend becomes evident too. The innovation in sound quality has been more or less linear, but the change in user experience has been non-linear. Google Home helped me witness the next non-linear change in user experience.
Voice controlled smart home: The next Frontier
For the last year or so, I have been watching Amazon launch and create a successful product called Echo. Although I saw it become successful, I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump in. I wanted to wait until Apple and Google brought their devices. In any case, my dear Sonos was doing a fabulous job.
I believed that this device category would become the dominant way to interact with a smart home and the web. My bets were on Google over Amazon and Apple. This confidence was there in spite of my poor experiences with Google hardware in the past. Anyone remember Google TV! It was based on my limited experience with Google voice recognition versus Siri’s voice recognition. Anyway, it is too early to say who will be left behind.
So when Google announced Google home I pre-ordered it along with my first chrome cast. I posed increasingly difficult questions to the device. “Play me some music, ” and the music began. Then I asked it “Play me some jazz, ” and it was bang on in what it played. And it could even follow a more specific command like “Play me some Miles Davis.” Over the last few months, my experience with Google Home has been mixed. It can do most things well but makes too many mistakes. But that is the case with all new technologies.
But my experience with Google Home has convinced me that we will be asking devices to play songs in the future. And this is just another step in significant enhancement in the music listening experience.I am convinced that we will be asking devices to play songs in the future
I am sure in the future, these devices will learn to play what we want to listen to without even being told! But for now, let me continue with my story.
Now, if we look at the history of Apple, it becomes clear that Apple is often a second mover but brings amazing hardware – software integration to create magic with its products. Apple wasn’t the first MP3 player or the first tablet, or the first smartphone. But in each case, it created something amazing. I have no reason to doubt that it won’t create the same wow! with its Home Pod.
The Existential Crossroads for Sonos
Since Google Home arrived, it quickly replaced Sonos in my kitchen. And if I look back, this is what happened to every other device in the past. My cassette players were relegated to the junkyard when the CD players arrived. The CD players were relegated to a cupboard when the MP3 players came. MP3 players were shoved into dark corners of drawers with Sonos taking over my home. And this fate of my music hardware mirrored the series of disruptions in the marketplace.Sonos is in a precarious place now
Sonos is in a precarious place now. Yes, it is working with Amazon to let Echo work with Sonos. But Sonos was very slow to add user needed innovations earlier. It was slow to add music providers in the past. I am afraid it may be too slow in adding a voice recognition technology in its players.
Options for Sonos
Sonos needs to move quickly and prioritize integration with voice-controlled technologies above everything else. Voice controlled devices are the first existential threat it faces. I see five options for Sonos
- Create its voice recognition technology and embed it into new players. Sell add-on devices that can connect with older players using its mesh network.
- License the voice recognition technology from Google (or another firm) and achieve the goals in option 1.
- Integrate with voice controlled devices in the market. It is already doing that with Amazon echo but has been quite slow. The voice controlled market is just beginning, and there is a long battle ahead before the winners emerge. Between now and then, Sonos cannot make predictions on who the winners will be. As a result, it needs to be integrated with every such device.
- Allow third-party developers and hardware makers to work with Sonos and Google to create devices that will let Sonos become voice controlled.
- Sell itself to a major player like Apple or Amazon.
Each of these choices will take Sonos down a different path, but if Sonos does not make these choices fast, it will fall behind even faster. I would hate to see my beautiful Sonos speakers relegated to my basement.
Hey Siri, Don’t Disrupt Sonos
Voice controlled devices are the first real existential threat that Sonos faces. Yes, the scaling issues in the past were big problems but nothing like what we will see next. Let’s see if Sonos will really learn to respond fast to this threat which is expanding rapidly.