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A path to consolidation in home audio
Clayton Christenson’s theory of disruption describes the process by which low-cost solutions come to dominate markets over time:
Incumbents ignore cheaper, inferior technologies because they don’t satisfy the needs of their most profitable customers.
As the category matures, incumbent solutions overshoot the minimum performance demands of most customers.
Meanwhile, the cheaper technologies (previously inferior) improve to the point where they can satisfy mainstream performance demands.
The lowest-cost technologies become widely adopted — thereby “disrupting” the market — and the cycle begins anew.
Applying this theory to consumer audio, the natural conclusion is Amazon and Google are the disruptors. Their speakers satisfy mainstream performance standards at a significantly more affordable price than alternatives. The flaw in this argument, however, is that disruption theory is based on the lowest cost provider winning the market. Amazon and Google may offer the lowest price, but they’re far from the lowest cost provider. (“The division that houses Amazon's Alexa is on track to lose $10 billion this year alone.”)
I’d argue the two have pursued the disruption playbook to catastrophe. Sure, they ship the vast majority of smart speaker units, but they’re also structurally unprofitable and lack pricing power; the business is long-term unsustainable. The first hints are recent layoffs, many of which target hardware divisions.
Hardware is hard because experimentation is expensive, and the cost structure is variable. Amazon and Google — masters at inexpensive experimentation and building scale — are finding that scale is counterproductive if product margins are negative. In all, their foray into smart speakers has been a value destructive exercise thus far; the real world does not abide by the same cost principles as the Internet.
Ben Thompson (whose work I highly recommend reading) points to another reason the attempted disruption has not panned out. The assumptions that underpin disruption theory don’t apply to consumer markets (emphasis mine):
Christensen’s theory is based on examples drawn from buying decisions made by businesses, not consumers. The reason this matters is that the theory of low-end disruption presumes:
Buyers are rational
Every attribute that matters can be documented and measured
Modular providers can become “good enough” on all the attributes that matter to the buyers
All three of the assumptions fail in the consumer market, and this, ultimately, is why Christensen’s theory fails as well.
Consumers aren’t rational because we’re not cold, calculative machines. We don’t look to satisfy a minimum performance threshold; we look for a brand with the best product experience that we can afford. Subjective user experience is more important than objective performance specifications.
Thompson continues to explain the alternative to disruption: obsoletion. Obsoletion takes a “top down” approach compared to the “bottom up” strategy characteristic of disruption. He writes (emphasis mine):
An even cursory examination of tech history makes it clear that “obsoletion” – where a cheaper, single-purpose product is replaced by a more expensive, general purpose product – is just as common as “disruption” – even more so, in fact. Just a few examples (think about it – you’ll come up with a bunch more):
The typewriter and word processor were obsoleted by the PC
Typesetting was obsoleted by the Mac and desktop publishing
The newspaper was obsoleted by the Internet
The CD player was obsoleted by the iPod
The iPod was obsoleted by the iPhone
Disruption is cost-led. Obsoletion is experience-led. While Thompson applies the obsoletion framework to Apple, the same lens is appropriate for Sonos:
Sonos also sells consumer hardware.
Its products are more expensive than widely available alternatives.
User experience differentiates the product, not performance specs.
Customers stick with the brand for a long time.
Most customers buy multiple products from the brand.
The owner of a sizable audio installation business confirmed the stickiness of Sonos products in a recent Tegus interview:
We have found that when someone works with Sonos, understands Sonos, they understand what music they can bring into it, they never go back. It's hard to move them away from it to think about anything else, and we end up even retrofitting a lot of their other homes.
The same owner added how the Sonos architecture is differentiated (emphasis mine):
The conventional side of audio/video forever was cumbersome and difficult to say the least in structuring and wiring and so forth because that was before the digital age of HDMI, we were doing everything with analog, while HDMI kind of transitioned us into a simplified function. And Sonos come along with a product that is for all practical intentions, a more simplified process to the same end. And it basically revolutionized what we do. It changed the way we approach systems, the way that we really design a complete product around. And Sonos started to become a lot more of our business because of the offerings and their growth in that field and category of soundbars, subwoofers, separate speakers.
Performance specs do not differentiate Sonos — plenty of speakers offer comparable sound quality. It’s the experience, and the networking architecture that enables the experience (for both the installer and the user) that defines Sonos. As I wrote previously:
Because Sonos owns the architecture, no competitor can offer a comparable in-home sound system (read: experience) as Sonos (hence why Sonos’ stated ambition is to be “the world’s leading sound experience brand.”) Make no mistake — Sonos competes with other brands, but they offer products; Sonos offers a system.
This is an important point because it shows the differentiation is defensible; patents protect the networking architecture for the next decade plus. Also importantly, a “system” approach returns to the concept of a “general purpose” solution, as part of Thompson’s obsoletion framework.
An obsoletive technology packages multiple solutions into a single, more expensive solution. We see this in the iPhone, which packages emails, calls, music, and the Internet into one device. We also see it in Sonos, which packages speakers in the living room, kitchen, bedroom, etc. into a single listening app. And as Thompson elaborates, obsoletion has shown to be particularly effective in hardware (emphasis mine):
A theme I have returned to frequently on this blog is the importance of distinguishing between horizontal and vertical business models – hardware and services, in mobile. It is the former, hardware, that seems most receptive to obsoletive technologies, driven by Moore’s Law. It is services, though, due to the zero marginal cost of serving customers, where disruption is a much more applicable theory. It’s Google, then, and Amazon to a degree, that are the most disruptive of companies, but primarily to other horizontal services, not necessarily to differentiated hardware that has inherent value.
From my perspective, Sonos is heading in the right direction. “Obsoletion” is an effective strategy for business-building in consumer hardware, and Sonos has spent 20 years building a brand worthy of the strategy.
All told, it’s clear Amazon and Google have pursued strategies of disruption. However, I think their attempt to “disrupt” audio has actually just commoditized smart speakers. In the long run, I anticipate this will strengthen Sonos’ counter-positioning as a premium, obsoletive (more expensive, more capable) solution.
Sonos’ vision is to “obsolete” traditional home audio products by packaging them into a single system, controllable from your phone. Of course, it will be difficult and take time to accomplish. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Here’s what Patrick Spence had to say in his Letter from the CEO at the time of IPO (2018):
At Sonos, we’ve learned the value of doing hard things. We’ve also learned that the hard things take time. You can’t create a new product category or a breakthrough innovation if you’re only looking three months into the future. Industry leadership requires bold ideas and lasting commitments, and we refuse to let short-term opportunism keep us from realizing long-term opportunities.
I think that’s the right way to think about it.
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