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尼克米林顿有 刚开始觉得自己像一个成功的软件工程师。这是2003初, 在26岁的时候, 他已经在微软有了卓有成效的职业生涯。他担心他的一居室公寓在雷德蒙, 华盛顿-充满了混杂的讨价还价的家具和 DIY 货架制成的煤块和木板-不代表他的向上流动。他不再是个挨饿的学生了, 他是个成年人。所以米林顿做了我们所做的一切, 一旦我们能够: 他买了一个更大, 更优雅的公寓, 并充满了全新的东西。
"我开始思考我家的设计," 米林顿说。"你知道, 升级到更高档的宜家家具, 看起来不错。
One nagging problem was how to rig up his music system. Digital music was exploding on the internet, and Millington had spent many hours methodically trying to collect every Billboard Top 40 hit from 1945 onward, amassing a wide range of other, more eclectic music files along the way. But listening to his treasure trove of tunes felt like living in the dorms again. All of his MP3s were stored on the boxy PC he kept in his living room. “At the time, my music setup was a Gateway 2000 tower PC and then I had a laptop,” he says. “I would do terminal server into the PC and play MP3 files there. That wasn’t cutting it for me.”
在同一时间, 一个圣巴巴拉, 加利福尼亚州, 启动调用 Sonos 是招聘工程师。Sonos 以一个简单的音高来讨好米林顿: 它想让数字音乐播放器在他的 "时髦" 宜家货架上看起来可敬, 无线访问他的 MP3s 而不要求他触摸 PC, 并在他的房子的每个房间播放他所有的音乐。米林顿想要进来。
Now, 15 years later, Nick Millington is the chief product officer at Sonos: the guy responsible for all of the company’s speakers and software. When I meet him at Sonos’ East Coast headquarters in Boston, he’s dressed like an archetypical engineer, in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt. Framing his round face is brown hair that’s kept in check but seems to be waiting for the chance to poof and curl. He looks both completely put together and a dash disheveled all at once.
Millington is named as an inventor on 69 Sonos patents, with 33 others pending—a significant portion of the company’s entire portfolio, which numbers around 500 patents. He also developed the core networking framework that keeps the playback of multiple Sonos speakers throughout a home in perfect sync. His work was central to the company’s early adoption of apps and its expansion from amps to speakers. Yet, even though his efforts have proven critical to the company’s success, Millington tends to credit others a lot more than himself. He seems more concerned with solving problems than bragging about his solutions, which may be why he’s never sought a greater spotlight or given an in-depth interview before talking to WIRED.
Since 2005, Sonos has sold 19 million audio devices—each of them a representation of the work done by Millington and his team—into 7 million homes. The same speakers still top many best-of guides. By most measures, it’s a story of success.
In the future, Millington hints, Sonos may create its first speakers and audio products designed to leave the house.
But today, Sonos is sailing rougher seas. Cofounder and CEO John MacFarlane resigned in early 2017 and was replaced by COO Patrick Spence. The company has also had more than one round of layoffs as it has dealt with an evolving competitive landscape. The rise of the voice-assistant smart speaker, in particular, took the company by surprise. Just this year, shortly before going public, Sonos released a new soundbar that interacts with voice services from Apple, Amazon, and soon, Google—the same tech giants who have charged forcefully into the multiroom wireless speaker market Sonos built.
It will be up to Millington and his product team to chart a course through the choppy, frenemy-filled waters ahead. To do it, he may help guide the company into new places altogether. Until now, all Sonos products have been shackled to rooms inside your home. In the future, Millington hints, Sonos may create its first speakers and audio products designed to leave the house.
Millington is used to leaving houses. As the son of a British Diplomatic Service officer, he spent his entire childhood globetrotting, but it was his time as a kid in Japan in the 1980s—an era when the country was the worldwide epicenter for electronic innovation—that set him on a path toward tech.
“There was an area of Tokyo called Akihabara, which is where there were all of these tech companies and these stores where you could go buy endless arrays of parts, and incredibly cheap floppy disks and all sorts of equipment,” Millington says. “I used to go almost every weekend with a few geeky friends of mine and check out various developments and things like that.”
He learned about networking early on as well, subscribing to the first dialup internet service provider in Japan, called TWICS. He ran a Tokyo PC users group on a bulletin board system that predated the web. Eventually, he landed at Duke University in the US and then went to Microsoft when he graduated in 1998, where he worked on SharePoint, the software maker’s online collaboration platform.
When Sonos was founded, in 2002, there was no streaming music. No Spotify. No Pandora. AOL dialup was the most popular way to access the internet, and many families didn’t even have Wi-Fi yet. iTunes was popularizing the concept of legal music downloads, and file-sharing services like Kazaa were growing in popularity as the music industry reeled in the wake of Napster.
Buying Guide: Which Sonos Speaker Should You Buy?
The four founders of Sonos, led by MacFarlane, recognized that digital music would increasingly become a bigger part of consumer’s lives. Their big idea was an ambitious plan to make it possible for anyone to set up a multiroom home speaker network for digital music. At the time, multiroom systems could be purchased, but they were inaccessible.
“The technology was very cumbersome,” Millington says. “It was difficult to set up. It was typically the domain of high-end installers charging very high prices for stuff that didn’t always work terribly well. Sometimes you had to actually rebuild your home to put in the necessary wiring and speakers.”
Their plan was to democratize the whole stack. Instead of requiring dedicated wiring or a team of professional installers, Sonos would create Wi-Fi amplifiers (“ZonePlayers”) that you could tether to the speakers you already owned. Set a Sonos amp in any room of your house, and digital music could be summoned from your computer using a dedicated wireless remote control. You’d be able to move your speaker setup to new rooms, alter which speakers were grouped together, and take the whole arrangement with you if you bought a new home.
By early 2003, the founders had hired Andy Schulert to head up product development. He quickly called on Millington, an old Microsoft colleague, to help solve the most daunting problem the company was facing: how to develop networking tech that would flawlessly sync multiple amplifiers together, transport music between them, and keep them connected and updated through the internet—all over Wi-Fi, which was far less mature back then. Despite having no audio experience “except for 10 years of piano lessons,” Millington moved to Santa Barbara and taught himself what he needed to know about audio synchronization in a matter of weeks.
“We had a saying in the early days of Sonos that if there’s one thing that absolutely has to work in version 1 of the software it’s the ability to upgrade to version 1.1,” Millington says. “But if there are two things that have to work, then the audio transport is definitely the core part of it. I have always liked to gravitate toward the core problem where ‘If we don’t solve this, we have no product’ and make sure that it’s handled in the best possible way.”
Syncing amps (and their speakers) wasn’t easy. One of the big challenges with multiple speakers is dealing with the accuracy of the human ear, which can quickly detect audio that’s out of sync.
“The way that you perceive stereo [sound] is with differences in time when the signal arrives at your right ear and your left ear,” Millington explains. “If that is moving around or it’s off, it will seem like the sound is coming from a different location, and it can be quite quite disconcerting. You need to synchronize it to less than a millisecond of accuracy to have it be a really pleasurable experience.”
To get multiple speakers to sync that closely, Millington developed a method of time-stamping all the music traveling between speakers, thereby holding each speaker accountable. Timestamping made it virtually impossible for Sonos ZonePlayers to get out of sync.
Want to give Alexa an audio upgrade? Read our review of the Sonos One smart speaker.
The team made another important choice around this time. Instead of designating a permanent master ZonePlayer that centrally ran the entire network, the team created a distributed network in which every Player acted on its own and intelligently communicated with the others—no easy task. For example, if a user had five ZonePlayers hooked up, Millington couldn’t let all five of them fetch music from the internet. It would suck up too much bandwidth and potentially crush a home network. So he developed a “delegation” process that allowed every ZonePlayer to dynamically assign duties to one another. If one ZonePlayer was removed from the network, another one could pick up the slack and take over its duties—even fetching the music for all the Players, if necessary.
Unfortunately, none of this worked over Wi-Fi yet. John MacFarlane was adamant that the whole system work wirelessly, so Millington turned to mesh networking. This method offers a way to wirelessly connect devices in an ad hoc fashion, so you don’t need to rely on a central traffic point like a router to keep the network humming. Millington taught himself mesh networking in about six weeks.
By early 2004, Sonos’ wireless mesh networking system was working. Owners would be able to run up to 32 Sonos players in their home, grouping and ungrouping them at will to bundle rooms together, play the same music across an entire floor of their house, or use each player separately.
But code that works in the lab still has to pass real-world tests. Millington and the crew began traveling to homes with different Wi-Fi setups near Sonos’ East Coast headquarters in Boston and its West-Coast headquarters in Santa Barbara. They had to figure out what microwaves and cordless phones might do to a Sonos player under the same roof. In the early days of wireless networking, many products didn’t use Wi-Fi as frugally as they do today, and some were major bandwidth hogs, causing a lot of headaches for the team.
It was tempting to take the easy road and blame someone’s Wi-Fi for everything that went wrong. But for Sonos to succeed as a product, it had to operate in less-than-ideal wireless environments, and several months of troubleshooting ensued. The intense amount of testing the team went through in that prelaunch phase has been immortalized in code; all Sonos products are packed with onboard Wi-Fi diagnostic tools that can send reports to customer service reps when speakers start having problems.
The first Sonos ZonePlayer (ZP100) hit store shelves in early 2005 as part of a $1,199 bundle that included two amplifiers and a physical wireless remote controller.
That wireless controller had a screen and direction pad so you could play music without a PC. Some engineers affectionately referred to it as a “Russian iPod” because of its chunky, jog-wheel-bedecked design. But it was useful, displaying album art and song titles on a small screen, and giving users the ability to group and ungroup speakers. The company also made a strong effort to simplify setup with three-step instructions.
At launch, the ZP100 was a niche proposition. Wireless multiroom systems were entirely new. Sonos players, though cheaper than a professionally installed wired system, were still fairly expensive, and the fact that they required you to purchase your own speakers was tough to communicate to a mass audience. Hardcore audiophiles likely understood it, but many of them were already in the market for (or owned) a professional setup.
Still, for a startup like Sonos, it was a promising debut. The team believed the product worked really well and was reliable, and initial sales were at least decent. As word of mouth began to spread and new ZonePlayer amps arrived, Sonos gained more attention.
All-In on iPhone
With the concept of networked audio proven and Sonos’ amp business up and running, Millington was promoted to director of advanced development and architecture in 2006. In his new role, he assembled a small team of half a dozen engineers to create bold, innovative product ideas—a skunkworks team of sorts. While the rest of the company maintained and improved those wireless amps, he began working on new concepts.
One of his first projects turned out to be a critical milestone for Sonos.
With Millington at the helm, Sonos launched its first iPhone app in late 2008—the same year the App Store launched. The company debated whether to charge for the app (nobody knew how much apps should really cost back then) but decided to make it free.
Millington credits the other founders, particularly MacFarlane, for the brisk adoption of iOS. MacFarlane’s “a guy who lives three or four years in the future, and he takes for granted things that don’t actually exist yet, is kind of how I would describe his mindset,” Millington tells me with a smile. “He really gave us the push in that area.”
The app eliminated the need for a host PC or that “Russian iPod” wireless controller. In the years that followed, Millington and the team continued to flesh out the app and began adding direct access to music streaming services as listeners stopped hoarding MP3s on their home computer and began turning to services like Pandora, Rhapsody, and Spotify.
Sonos also made a critical decision around this time that continues to define what the company is about: It chose to remain an open platform. The company decided against making its own music service and instead began working to support every audio service on the market in a completely neutral way.
“Sonos is a level playing field for these services to compete for users’ attentions and subscriptions. We’ve never taken any money from a music service or promoted any one of them [over the others],” Millington says. “I think the services appreciate that.”
The Sonos app eventually grew to support around 100 services globally, more than any similar platform.
The First Sonos Speaker
The next milestone project for Millington’s team was a full-fledged speaker for Sonos. In early 2008, he hired an audio engineer named Chris Kallai, a self-described “audio nut” who had spent time at Harman and Velodyne.
In its early years, Sonos focused on amplifiers instead of speakers because it seemed too difficult for an unknown brand to launch a speaker as its first product. There were a lot of established companies in the space. Executives also believed that users and reviewers tended to judge speakers differently than amps. Amps are almost always evaluated objectively. With speakers, however, each listener tends to favor their preferred sound signatures.
“There was just a lot of snake oil and folklore around which ones sound good and which ones don’t, and things like that,” Millington says. “You know the nice thing about an amplifier is you can measure whether it sounds good or not. Either it reproduces the input or it doesn’t, whereas with a speaker it’s much more subjective.”
To solve the problem, the company decided to avoid creating a “Sonos sound” of its own. Kallai, Millington, and others decided Sonos speakers would try to replicate what recording engineers heard in the studio as they recorded albums. They assembled a group of recording artists and engineers to help. Several notable names in music, including Rick Rubin, joined the group. (Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin and overseer of many recent Beatles remasterings, currently heads it up.)
With Kallai’s help, Sonos shipped the $399 Play:5 speaker in 2009. Millington and others described this as a turning point for the company because of how much it simplified the Sonos proposition. Combined with the new iPhone app, it was a speaker that worked out of the box and sounded fantastic. It could be used alone or be networked with as many as 31 pieces of Sonos hardware—other Play:5 speakers or older ZonePlayers. It also got more capable over time, thanks to firmware updates that downloaded and installed from the app—refreshing all speakers at once.
“In some ways you can think of [the Play:5] as the first smart speaker in the sense that it’s internet-connected, runs software, connects to music services, and can make music itself rather than being hooked up to an external amplifier and speakers,” Millington says.
The Play:5 earned relatively high marks 从 reviewers, who liked its sound and features. It helps that the Play:5 stood out among what seemed like a sea of home speakers with iPod docks or then-subpar Bluetooth radios.
Let the Good Times Roll
The success of products like the Play:5 and iPhone app led to a promotion for Millington. He was put in charge of the entire product department at Sonos in early 2010.
Throughout the next few years, more and more music listeners began to rely on their phones to stream songs, and for anyone who liked using an app, Sonos became an attractive idea. The company enjoyed a wave of growth and recognition as a leader in multiroom audio during these years, adding speakers like the petite $200 Play:1 (the top-selling Sonos speaker) and Playbar soundbar to its lineup. Eventually, Sonos came full circle and revamped the Play:5, giving it touch controls and a modern exterior.
In early 2014, Sonos redesigned its smartphone app, adding a universal music search that let you hunt through all your music services at once. Later that year, an update eliminated the need to physically plug one of your speakers/amps into your home router to create a Sonos network. All of a sudden, every Sonos player could just connect via Wi-Fi, further simplifying setup.
But at the end of 2014, things began to change. Amazon released a small voice-powered speaker called the Echo. It didn’t sound very good, and Sonos didn’t recognize it as a threat. But the Echo quietly kicked off an entirely new wave of smart speakers powered by voice control. Just as things were beginning to get comfortable, the ground beneath Millington and his team’s feet began to shift.
After I finish my multihour chat with Nick Millington in the “Fenway” meeting room at Sonos’ Boston office, hardware lab manager Jim Weineck whisks me away to give me a full tour of the company’s labs, where products, new and old, are put through their paces. The facility is intense. Many testing chambers look like massive bank vaults from the outside, and it’s not uncommon to see huge foam cones protruding from the walls and ceilings.
In one chamber, speakers are stress-tested by having special pink noise tones piped through them for several months at a time. Pink noise sounds a lot like white noise, but it contains frequencies that are better for testing audio systems. (I was told that, in the Santa Barbara offices, Sonos had 64 Play:1 speakers playing audio at maximum volume for 12 months straight using a custom-designed tone. This tone, called “life test noise,” simulates a bunch of songs across all genres at once, and pumping it through the speakers for a year can simulate 10 years of playback.)
In another room the size of a walk-in freezer, a huge circular array of probes studies how well the Wi-Fi antennas in Sonos products pick up and emit a signal. A monitor shows me a 3-D Wi-Fi cloud for the Sonos Playbase, which appears to have a tough time picking up signals directly below it. Other rooms test for things like the long-term effects of extreme temperatures, static electricity and how it impacts touch controls, and unintentional radiation.
On the tour, one engineer tells me Sonos speakers are packed with more antennas and connectivity tech than they actually need. The team even tries to squeeze in features that may not be used yet, knowing they might be activated in the future via a software update. Whenever Sonos releases new updates, it takes pains to make sure older hardware still works reliably. Millington and other employees say there are still ZP100s out there, serving up music in 2018 just like they did in 2005. Quite a few of them, actually. Sonos claims that 93 percent of all the players it has sold are still in use—a figure that stands out in a tech world where internet-connected products increasingly seem to die on a whim.
Weineck leads me into Sonos’ anechoic acoustic chamber, my favorite part of the tour. It’s a two-story vault with a door so heavy it needs to be operated electronically. Inside, the room is completely silent. The walls and ceiling are covered with bundles of foot-long, gray, triangular prisms that absorb all sound and cancel any reverberations. The floor is a trampoline-like mesh material topped with a metal wire grid. If you peer through the mesh, you can see that you’re suspended about 10 feet off the gray, foamy ground. In the center of the room is a pedestal where a speaker sits with an arced pole of microphones in front of it. These mics capture and map the sound that comes out of a speaker.
The Sonos Beam adds voice control to your home theater. Read our review.
Standing in a silent chamber is oddly unnerving. Weineck tells me that with the lights out, people start to go crazy after a few minutes in the vault because they lose all sense of space and direction. All they can hear is their own heartbeat. As soon as he tells me this, I too swear I can hear my own organs pulsating.
Other areas of the facility hold Faraday cages that block outside signals to create a pure environment where Sonos can test the Wi-Fi access points of its speakers (a necessity in a building filled with hundreds of internet-connected devices). A 3-D-printing room lets designers quickly mock up new product ideas.
Weineck describes a couple of rooms as “teleconferencing on steroids” thanks to their electronic whiteboards, highly sensitive directional microphones, and a surgical camera mounted to the ceiling. The camera is precise enough to zoom in on the threading of a screw. The Santa Barbara offices have rooms identical to these here in Boston, enabling worldwide nitpicking as teams on each coast work together to perfect the look or sound of a new speaker.
Notes of humanity peek through the sterile jungle of lab equipment on concrete floors. I notice jokes posted on the walls and oddly placed toys, like a shark sitting atop test equipment, hinting that there is at least a 小 time for play in the audio labs. In a woodworking lab, some employees pulled a prank on an engineer’s tendency to meticulously label his supplies by labeling absolutely 一切 in the room when he was on vacation, including his sink and chair. They laughed, telling me it was to help him “get back up to speed quickly.”
There are also Obi-Wan Kenobi photos saying “this is not the room you’re looking for” cheekily plastered on some of the more mysterious doors in the labs during my visit. Like a good stormtrooper, I move along, but I also wonder what the audio Jedi are up to in those secret labs.
For a company born by looking ahead, Sonos was late to recognize the importance of voice controls in speakers. Though the Amazon Echo launched way back in 2014, Sonos just began selling its first voice-enabled products in the past year, with the Sonos One and the new Sonos Beam. The shift has forced Millington and his product team to rethink what a Sonos speaker should do all over again.
在某些方面, Sonos 仍然领先。Google 助理应用程序中的 multiroom 功能已经开始变得非常好, 但是亚马逊的 Alexa 在 multiroom 和第三方扬声器支持方面受到了很多头疼的困扰。谷歌和亚马逊的产品都不支持像 Sonos 那样多的流式服务, 而且苹果的 Siri 支持的唯一流式服务 HomePod 扬声器是苹果音乐。
当谈到语音助理时, Sonos 选择了保持不可知论。
"聪明的扬声器可以做很多事情, [但] 杀手的应用是音乐," 米林顿说。"我认为第二个只是, 你知道," Alexa 设置一个定时器30秒, "音乐是智能扬声器的主要应用。一旦您将多个扬声器放到了一个环境中, 就必须处理 multiroom 问题。它们必须同步, 您必须能够对它们进行分组, 并且您必须以分散的方式进行, 这不涉及任何类型的服务器。
就像他们通过支持所有的音乐流服务一样, 米林顿和他的船员们在谈到语音助理时, 选择了保持不可知的程度。虽然几乎所有其他的语音激活扬声器只专注于支持单一服务, 但 Sonos 计划在年底前支持三最大的 Alexa、Siri 和 Google 助理。团队甚至有一个名字, 我们所有的内容, 我们都访问语音助手: 声波互联网。
"在许多方面, 扬声器是声波互联网的浏览器," 米林顿说。"他们是让你去, 并连接到所有的内容, 在那里的东西。现在, 想象一个浏览器, 只能去 Amazon.com 或只能去 Google.com 或只能去 Apple.com。这是一个相当有限的经验。
米林顿说: "我们正在和 Alexa 一起工作, 没有人真正想过如何让这些东西共存.""这甚至意味着要求 Alexa ' 订购一个超级 ', 然后问谷歌, ' 什么时候我的超级会在这里？我们开始思考这些类型的问题。这对我来说是创新经常发生的地方。
到目前为止, Sonos 产品一直被制造在你家的房间里。公司的口头禅长期以来一直 "用音乐填满每个家庭"。但米林顿说, 这项任务可能对今天的 Sonos 限制太多。
米林顿的下一步可能是在声波互联网上所有的语音助理, 和整个扬声器平台 Sonos 已经开发, 在家里的第一次。
"我们谈论的关键转折之一是从家里到任何地方," 米林顿说, 仔细地选择他的话。"家不是你听音乐的唯一地方。有很多地方你听音乐。所以我想说, 在我们的路线图中, 如果没有给出任何东西的打击, 那就是我们正在考虑的关键主题之一。
当我再次问, 他澄清他的话, 但不会承诺任何未来的产品, 或他们是否是想法或实际上在发展。
"随着时间的推移, 你可能想享受音乐的地方-在你家的不同房间, 以及在家里-我们希望有一个产品, 这一方案非常好, 以及任何与您相关的内容," 他说。"我们想让你尽可能容易地把它召唤到你所在的地方。我们所有的工作都要进入这些领域。再次, 当我说的内容, 这不仅仅是音乐。它的声音文化伞一般: 播客, 娱乐, 电视原声音乐, 这样的事情。
这是否意味着 Sonos 计划在将来制作一套耳机？可能是电池供电的便携式 Sonos 扬声器？还有别的吗？我们必须拭目以待, 但考虑 Sonos 如何在家里工作是令人兴奋的。
由于外面没有可靠的 wi-fi, Sonos 的产品需要通过蓝牙连接到您的手机上, 或者他们可能直接与 LTE 服务相连--尽管这是一个很长的尝试。我们所知道的是, 这些现在都是 Sonos 正在思考的事情。
对于米林顿来说, Sonos 的未来最好的部分是它将如何改进公司已经发运的每种产品。
"就个人而言, 我非常自豪的是, 你可以使用最新的 iPhone 和我们的应用程序来控制一个 Sonos 播放器, 你在2005年买回来, 并听取 Spotify, 当这些技术甚至没有在当时存在。
米林顿和 Sonos 是否能够保持这种心态, 并将他们所有的新产品都活了十年--所有这些都是在追求一个上市公司所要求的那种增长--这是一个没有语音助理能回答的问题。