Sonos turns up the music with Amazon's Alexa partnership

If you can’t beat them, partner with them.

Sonos, a maker of connected speakers, and Amazon announced at an event Tuesday that users will soon be able to control Sonos speakers with their voices, as the industry leaders have partnered to integrate the software of Sonos and Alexa, Amazon’s smart home voice assistant.

Sonos’s reputation for finicky perfectionism and Amazon’s success with voice-controlled technology could lead to a deeper integration with Alexa-enabled devices than ever before. The partnership also shows how important it has become for a device to be smart-home capable, as Alexa (via the Amazon Echo) can perform hundreds of tasks, from hailing a car, to controlling a thermostat, to locking the front door.

“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,” wrote John MacFarlane, Sonos’s chief executive officer, in a blog post in March. “What is novel today will become standard tomorrow.”

At the event in New York Tuesday, Sonos and Amazon said they plan to launch a beta version later this year, and the feature will become available to all Sonos owners in 2017.

Founded in 2002, Sonos manufactures speakers that allow users to connect devices to music-streaming services including Spotify, Google Play Music, and Rhapsody. Sonos speakers could be controlled by touch, as a user could thumb through the mobile app. But Alexa and the Amazon Echo forced Sonos to integrate voice control too.

Launched in 2014, the Amazon Echo, controlled through Alexa, has been able to play music. Even though critics (including Sonos) said the sound quality of the Echo was inferior to Sonos, it gained attention for users’ ability to control the device with their voice. After Sonos initially wrote off the service, Mr. MacFarlane, in his blog post, acknowledged the success Amazon found with Echo.

“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,” said MacFarlane. “Voice is a big change for us, so we’ll invest what’s required to bring it to market in a wonderful way.”

Six months later, they have partnered with Amazon.

With Echo and its rivals, the smart home technology market is becomingly increasingly popular.

About 36 percent of consumers in a recent poll by the Nielsen-affiliated group The Demand Institute said they were “excited” to incorporate more of the technology in their homes, while 34 percent were neutral, as Max Lewontin wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in March. Not surprisingly, the richer and younger the demographic, the more popular a smart home was. It was most popular among people age 18-34 (53 percent) and people making more than $75,000 a year (47 percent).

A recent online survey of more than 4,600 people by the research firm Forrester found 57 percent had either had used or were interested in owning a smart-home device.

But, Alexa hasn’t generated buzz just around smart homes; it’s also expanded voice-activated devices.

For some, the appeal is a part convenience, part neat. 

Jeff Blankenburg, of Westerville, Ohio, told The Wall Street Journal he relies on his Echo speaker to open his garage door, track his car, and turn on or off lights around his house.

“I could walk over and turn on my lamp, but it’s way cooler to ask it to do it,” said the 39-year-old software developer.

And Mr. Blankenburg will soon be able to tell his Sonos to play his favorite song as he pulls out of the driveway.