A collective cheer roared from home-technology installers at CEDIA Expo 2016, when Sonos announced an API for home-automation integration starting with Control4 (Nasdaq: CTRL), Crestron, iPort, Lutron and Savant.
These partners – and most other respectable smart-home systems providers – have integrated with Sonos for many years, albeit with unsanctioned drivers created through reverse-engineering of a fairly straightforward UPnP-based protocol.
But the new API kind of snuck up on dealers and vendors alike, with their customers waking up to a brand new Sonos experience in late December, courtesy of an auto-update by Sonos.
The new experience was inferior to the original, with users unable to access Spotify or Amazon Music from the home automation system, except to select favorites created through Sonos’s own app.
Browsing and other on-the-fly functions ceased to work.
One dealer commenting on RemoteCentral.com called the unexpected update a “nightmare,” explaining: “Clients have been used to one eco system only to have to use two. … Having to go between apps is not only very annoying, some clients are having issues knowing when to do so.”
The rest of the dealers commenting in the thread shared his frustration: “Why did Sonos have to break what was great?”
Well, there were at least two good reasons: 1) Spotify (now) and other music providers (soon) are changing their relationships with streaming-media product providers like Sonos; and 2) The proper way to integrate in any reliable, scalable fashion is to create an API and, well, Sonos is new at it.
“The new endorsed partner integrations we rolled-out in the fall served as a level-set and a new baseline to build on moving forward,” says the Sonos marketing team in an email exchange with CE Pro. “We are building toward a platform which is both scalable and sustainable and will benefit partners, dealers and customers alike. Our endorsed partner program was the first step.”
In the case of sanctioned home-automation partners, the updates affect only Spotify and Amazon Music … for now. We can expect eventually for other services to follow suit.
“Currently, other music services supported by the legacy driver continue to function,” says Control4 VP product management Paul Williams, in an email exchange with CE Pro; “however Control4 cannot predict future operability indefinitely because such support is controlled by Sonos or the music service providers.”
For a time, Control4 kept its original UPnP-based Sonos driver online for dealers, but it was removed on Jan. 1.
Sonos explains, “While Control4’s endorsed integration doesn’t have the same level of functionality as the workaround, it is much more scalable and won’t break every time we introduce new software updates.”
As for other home-automation companies that currently integrate richly – but unofficially – with Sonos music systems, don’t get too comfortable.
Responding to a question on this topic, Sonos replies, “As we take steps to build a scalable, sustainable platform that continues to be more open and accessible to many more partners in the future, the result is that back-door integrations may be affected. Now that we have a partner program we are able to provide support for the first time and that is our focus.”
Alternatives to the Sonos Experience
In a memo to dealers, Control4 describes alternatives to the current Sonos state of affairs for customers that want deeper integration with Spotify and Amazon Music today: Denon HEOS, Bluesound or NAD (from Lenbrook), Fusion Research and Autonomic. (Of course, there are many others, including Bluesound, NuVo, and Russound.)
For its part, Fusion Research “just finished up a completely new redesign of the C4 driver for our Fusion Music Servers,” says Fusion VP sales Ingo Schmoldt in the RemoteCentral thread.
He says Fusion engineers worked closely with the Control4 driver team “to have our driver work and install just like the old Sonos driver, so dealers would be familiar with it.”
In its memo to dealers, however, Control4 cautions, “These are good options but please note that in the future Spotify, Amazon Music, and others may impose a similar change to user experience with these device manufacturers as well.”
Alternatively, consumers can learn to love other streaming services that integrate well (including search) with Control4 and other home-automation systems: Pandora, Deezer, Napster (Rhapsody), TuneIn, TIDAL.
As it happens, Control4 supports these services natively through its EA line of controllers.
For Control4 users in particular, there is another option – OS 2.8.0 with Control4’s Shairbridge driver, which uses Apple’s Airplay wireless protocol to stream music from iOS devices to the Control4 system.
The application enables iOS users (Android with the addition of a Control Music Bridge) to stream virtually any music service into the Control4 system, with full native app capability from the music providers.
Unfortunately, the user must exit the Control4 experience to access music.
A Failure to Communicate
At the end of the day, integrators were probably expecting this disruption to the Sonos experience; however, the implementation caught many dealers – even some manufacturers – by surprise.
“Sonos had previously communicated that we may see [degradation] in the driver,” Williams says; “however, they had not communicated a specific timeframe.
When the auto-update occurred, Control4 “had to react quickly to get the information out to our dealers,” Williams says.
The company rushed out a detailed report to dealers on the ramifications of the new API.
For its part, Sonos concedes it could have provided better, more advanced warning to integrators and the industry at large, before the auto-update occurred.
“What we can do better at is communication and ensuring dealers feel more like they’re part of the necessary evolution vs. unwanted changes happening to them,” says Dane Estes, Sonos director of global platform communications.”
In a statement to CE Pro, Sonos says:
[W]e acknowledge that dealers can benefit from transparency and better direct communication as to where Sonos is headed and what the benefits are – and we want their feedback as well. We’ve had very productive conversations with the dealers who we’ve had a chance to speak with directly.
Dealers Peeved Anyway
At the end of the day, we can probably all agree with Sonos that “the existing third-party workarounds weren’t sustainable or scalable. Some of them provided a good short term solution for many, but not a long-term solution.”
Even so, some dealers feel cheated.
“The GUI operability is tragic and users think it's a joke,” says one.
“They appear to be doing everything that they can to drive us away,” says another.
Likewise, according to another dealer, “The API from Sonos is very limited because Sonos has never cared about the CI industry.”
Still other dealers remain optimistic.
“I think once Crestron, C4, etc. put more pressure on Sonos, the API will open up more,” an integrator writes.
Another sees the value of an official API, limited as it might be right now: “Sticking with the Sonos controller also has the advantage that customers have access to any new Sonos controller features as soon as the features are released and don't need to wait for me to develop a response to the update then distribute my code to each customer.”
Sonos promises its undying affection for the custom installation channel. Estes says:
We will continue put energy into creating experiences that customers love and focus on strong communication with dealers. We recently launched a new email alias Dealercommunications@sonos.com to better promote immediate two-way communication, among other initiatives in the works. We will also evolve our arsenal of educational resources and tools to help you better communicate with and serve their customers, and will roll these out and provide updates directly and at key industry moments like CEDIA and throughout the year.
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