January 11, 2017:Sonos CEO steps down amid Echo and Google Home competition

Sonos chief executive John MacFarlane has stepped down, but the company already has a replacement: president Patrick Spence, who joined Sonos in 2012 as its chief commercial officer.

MacFarlane announced the news in a blog post on Sonos’ website as well as an interview with the New York Times, with the popularity of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker – and the recent launch of Google’s Home to compete with it – looming large.

“I fell into that trap where I’ve been watching voice recognition for years. I tried Echo in the beginning and wrote it off. I had too many distractions at that time. I wasn’t playing at the level I should have been playing at in all frankness,” MacFarlane told the NYT, having already discussed the Echo’s impact on Sonos’ strategy in March 2016, when his company announced a round of layoffs.

However, the latest development is being presented positively: as an unusually-well-planned succession at a time when Sonos is getting to grips with the potential of voice technology. “With what Amazon and Google are doing, the world has changed completely. We’re part of that new world,” Spence told the NYT.

“Here at Sonos, we all came to this epiphany differently and at different moments, but the work we’re doing now will deliver meaningful experiences for music listening at home,” added MacFarlane in his blog post. “The pivot that Sonos started at this time last year to best address these changes is complete. For us, it’s now about accelerating and leading.”

The spectre for Sonos is the fate of companies like Creative Labs and Diamond Multimedia, which were pioneers in the MP3-player space, before being blown out of the water by Apple’s iPod. Sonos’ pivot is all about ensuring its devices don’t become the Nomads or Rios of the streaming age. With Sonos reporting a 20% year-on-year increase in the number of households with its speakers, it’s not in immediate danger of marginalisation.

In 2017, with home-audio and hi-res music enjoying a new wave of support from the tech and music industries, it’s now Spence’s job to keep it that way. At least he can draw on his own pre-Sonos experience in 2011-12, when he spent a year at another early category-dominator that was knocked off its perch: BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion.

Stuart Dredge
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