Sonos’ acquisition of Snips signals move to private voice control

With anxiety around data privacy and voice control on the rise, the acquisition gives Sonos’ customers more options

Sonos, a big player in the integrated systems channel, revealed on Wednesday that it has acquired Paris-based AI voice control company Snips. In addition to acquiring more than 50 new employees, the smart speaker manufacturer also gains more than 50 voice-specific patents, according to a report in Variety. The deal was sealed for $37.5 million.

Why is this big news? Voice control from Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa currently sit alongside each other in Sonos’ voice-enabled speakers, but the Snips platform, which allows for voice processing from within the device, is a signal that Sonos is taking privacy concerns raised by cloud-based voice control seriously — though company CEO, Patrick Spence, insisted in his interview with Variety that the company wasn’t planning to compete with Amazon and Google in the voice-control arena but is rather focused on making its speaker ecosystem more “music-specific.”

“We do not plan to replicate the big tech ‘ask anything voice services’ but expect this acquisition will add to our customers’ ease of use and control as we continue to differentiate an end-to-end Sonos experience for our customers,” Spence said in Sonos’ Q4 letter. “This tailored experience aligns with external research showing that the most popular use for voice assistants is to access music.”

Still, Snips’ AI-based voice control platform does provide an alternative to the more popular voice assistant programs currently on the market. With its ability to create highly customized voice commands thanks to its “context-aware” machine learning, and most crucially, its localized voice processing, which eliminates the sending of end-user data transfers to the cloud, the Snips platform does give a greater sense of security to customers with privacy concerns. Recent reports about Amazon employees listening to Alexa users’ recordings and press analysis creating Orwellian levels of anxiety does give one pause when considering whether voice control is truly the tech champion of the future.

That anxiety can also explain, to some extent, the success of Sonos’ recent exclusive partnership with Ikea, which saw more than 30,000 mic-free Sonos speakers (the Symfonisk line — a lamp and bookshelf speaker, respectively) fly off the shelves the first day they debuted.

The acquisition of Snips was announced alongside Sonos’ quarterly earnings report, which revealed a fiscal fourth-quarter net loss of $29.6 million, compared with a loss of $1.7 million in the same period last year. Spence noted that the increased spend was due to investment in research and development, the acquisition of engineering staff from the shuttered robotics company Anki, and the opening of a San Francisco office.

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