Since its founding nearly 15 years ago, Sonos has amassed a devoted following among audio enthusiasts for its high-end, WiFi-connected speakers. But now its business is endangered by a new breed of speakers powered by artificial intelligence assistants from the likes of Google and Amazon. They're starting to eat into the company's bottom line. In the midst of that change, Sonos cofounder John MacFarlane is stepping down as CEO after leading the company since 2002. Sonos president Patrick Spence will be taking over as CEO.
One of the unintended results of our growing world of voice-activated devices and assistants is that they can be inadvertently set to a task. We first caught a glimpse of that problem two and a half years ago when an Xbox One ad woke Xbox consoles across the globe. More recently, Amazon's Alexa ended up inadvertently obeying a command from broadcast TV to make a purchase on Amazon--or at least that's what some Echo owners claim. It all started a few days ago when a 6-year-old girl in Texas asked Alexa to "play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse." Alexa quickly complied with the request and ordered the child a dollhouse from Amazon, as well as four pounds of cookies, according to CBS DFW.
Streaming songs, ordering pizza, and booking cabs are no-brainers for Alexa, the voice-activated assistant installed on Amazon Echo devices. But Alexa also unfortunately appears to enjoy engaging in a little unintentional retail therapy. Recently, a six-year-old girl in Texas was able to order a $170 dollhouse and four-pounds worth of sugar cookies through Amazon's Echo Dot. But at least in that case, the kindergartner was actually talking directly to Alexa. On the morning of Jan. 5, California television channel CW-6 was reporting on the little girl's purchases when it accidentally caused a slew of other Alexas to also attempt shopping sprees.
The first tech event of 2017 is also the year's biggest: CES arrives the first week of January, and like a tardy Santa Claus, it bestows the world with the gift of new consumer tech of every kind -- phones, cars, TVs, drones, VR -- you name it. Looked at another way, CES tends to catapult new devices and technologies at the world like enormous gobs of spaghetti. The thing about spaghetti, though, is not much of it will stick. A large portion of the gadgets, gear and concepts shown at CES will never make it to store shelves, as cool as some of them may be. Still, while many of the devices and gear on display may be suspect on an individual basis, taken in aggregate, they point the way for the industry (and its many sub-industries).
It was the year that our smartphones became boring, and smartwatches proved to be less a revolution than an alternative to any other watch. But things also got weird this year: VR finally had its moment in the limelight--Oculus Rift and HTC Vive both hit after years of hype--while Pokemon Go and Snapchat normalized augmented reality, seemingly overnight. Here are our favorite--and least favorite--UI projects from the year. Clara In a world where every speaker in your home wants to crack a joke, Clara is a quiet revolution in AI assistants. Rather than living in some product or app, Clara is a virtual person that you simply CC on emails.
Mark Zuckerberg set himself an ambitious personal project for 2016 – build a connected artificial assistant to help him automate certain tasks at home, including things like controlling the lights, watching for visitors and operating appliances. Zuckerberg said on Facebook that his task actually turned to be "easier than [he] expected" in some ways – which should come as no surprise given that a good percentage of you out there reading this right now can accomplish all those things using readily available devices like Amazon's Echo. To be fair, most (all?) Echo owners didn't build their own Alexa service from scratch, and that's what Zuckerberg set out to do, coding his own personal Jarvis using Python, PHP and Objective C, and incorporating machine learning techniques including language processing, speech recognition and face recognition. The Facebook CEO also had to wrangle a bunch of connected devices that don't necessarily talk to each other out of the box, including Sonos, Spotify, a Samsung TV, a Crestron smart home and lighting system, a Nest cam and more. And once these were all tied together, Zuckerberg also had to build a way to translate natural language requests made as though you were talking too another person into commands that could operate all of the above.
Alexa's a pretty cool invention, right? Amazon's virtual assistant tells jokes, dims your living room lights, and responds to famous Star Wars quotes. I mean, what more can you ask for? In addition to rattling off compelling news stories, she also entertains the masses wherever she goes. My sister, for example, stores the portable Echo device in her kitchen because she likes playing music while she cooks.
Reviewing a product designed to learn over time is like reviewing a newborn baby. So much functionality is dependent on artificial intelligence and machine learning, the only certainty is that it'll get smarter over time. Who knows what it'll end up being: A jack-of-all-trades? Or maybe just a creeper that records everything you say? At birth, it didn't have the ability to order you Domino's, play Spotify playlists, or get things from Amazon Prime.