Echo effect: How Amazon's Alexa will give voice to more devices

The latest company to jump on the voice-command bandwagon is speaker maker Sonos. You can thank Amazon for that trend.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
2 min read

Hey Sonos, we should talk...

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Get ready to talk to your toaster.

If you're an Amazon Echo owner, chances are you're already pretty comfortable chatting up its digital assistant, Alexa. Ask any major tech company, whether it's Apple, Google or Microsoft, and it's clear that voice is how you'll be controlling your gadgets in the future.

That trend is flowing down to smaller companies such as Sonos. The privately held maker of wireless audio speakers said late Wednesday that it would start developing voice-operated devices.

"The Echo found a sweet spot in the home," Sonos CEO John MacFarlane said in a blog post, "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."

Sonos' move points to a future where everything in your home, whether it's a wireless speaker or a refrigerator, will respond to your voice. Vocal commands, done the right way, can be more natural and simpler for people to use than a busy touch panel or easy-to-lose remote controls. Amazon's Alexa can already control your lights and hail you an Uber ride, and following close behind are digital assistants like Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana.

The fact that Sonos is now behind in voice doesn't come without pain. MacFarlane said his Santa Barbara, California, company will lay off some staff amid the transition, but declined to say how many people would be let go.

A Sonos representative likewise declined to offer any further details.

Importantly, having more listening devices means having more always-on microphones in the home, which raises questions about how comfortable people will be using these new devices.

Along with the Echo, which is powered by Amazon's homegrown Alexa artificial-intelligence software, LG has unveiled the Uplus, another voice-controlled speaker. Apple added Siri to its Apple TV streaming device and iPhones, while Microsoft put Cortana in smartphones and laptops, too. Amazon last week also revealed two more devices, the Amazon Tap and the Echo Dot, taking Alexa to even more places in the home.

While the Echo has been a hit so far with customers, the device isn't even two years old, so it's still hard to tell if talking devices are a fad.

MacFarlane seems to see those changes as just the beginning for voice, though he didn't specify whether he plans for Sonos to create its own voice software or piggyback off another company's technology.

"[The Echo's] popularity with consumers will accelerate innovation across the entire industry," he said. "What is novel today will become standard tomorrow."