Spotify Makes Its Biggest Hardware Play Yet With Spotify Connect, Syncing Music At Home And Beyond

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Spotify is today adding a new feature to its iOS app that represents the streaming company’s most ambitious move yet to position itself as the go-to music app on connected devices — and in the process entice more people to pay the $9.99 per month required to use the app. It’s launching Spotify Connect, a new button in the app that will let users seamlessly shift Spotify music playing between their handsets and different Wi-Fi-connected devices in the home, starting with audio devices from 10 manufacturers.

Spotify Connect also has a social twist: if you have other Spotify users on your Wi-Fi network, they, too, can take control of the decks through the feature. (But just make sure you only let friends connect to your Wi-Fi whose musical taste won’t clash with yours because Spotify, maybe betraying its benign Scandinavian roots, is relying on a kind of civility code for how this gets used. Adding in any kind of blocking or controlling feature would just “make things needlessly complicated,” Pascal de Mul, Spotify’s global head of hardware partnerships, told me in an interview.)

Ultimately, the aim is for Spotify — now live in 28 countries and with a catalog of 20 million tracks — to become as widespread as possible, and therefore the most convenient music app for consumers to use. “Remember when every music device came with a tape deck or CD player or radio? We would like that ubiquity for Spotify, to be that way on every device,” said de Mul. (He used the word “ubiquitous” a lot.)

But not all platforms are created equal. Spotify Connect is coming out on iOS for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices today, and de Mul tells me that the company is working on updates for its Android and desktop apps that will also add the new Spotify Connect feature. But for now there are “no plans” to update its Windows Phone or BlackBerry apps.

How it works

I had a look around Spotify Connect, and it works like this: if you’re listening to some music on your phone, and you come home and want to continue listening but through a bigger sound system, you select the little speaker icon to the right of the music navigation bar. Up pops a screen with a list of devices that are connected to the network. You select the device and the music instantly transfers to playing on that device. Your handset, using the Spotify app, becomes the controller of that music. When the desktop app with Spotify Connect comes out, you can include that in the list and use it to control the music, too. For someone that had to call Sonos support more than once to get her system to work properly (to be fair… we had a tricky analog integration) this is dead simple to use.

For now, the initial list of device makers are Argon, Bang & Olufsen, Denon, Hama, Marantz, Philips, Pioneer, Revo, Teufel and Yamaha, with more brands getting added before the end of the year — basically hardware makers that have built in chips made by companies that have cut deals with Spotify to embed its technology. That list of chipmakers, meanwhile, right now only has two names on it, SMSC (now part of Microchip) and Frontier Silicon, but just as Spotify is talking with more hardware makers, De Mul says he expects that chipmaker list to grow, too. For now, those who are Spotify Connect compatible will include a compatibility badge on their packaging.

So what happens to existing hardware deals?

Spotify Connect is not the company’s first foray into home entertainment systems, but it represents a new chapter in how Spotify wants to be in better control of the experience in the future.

Before today, if you wanted to stream Spotify music in your home, you had a couple of options. One was to buy specific connected hardware that would have made a bespoke integration with Spotify, and you would connect to control those devices using Airplay or Bluetooth. But de Mul notes that this was not ideal.

“Yes, we have made partnerships with a lot of hardware makers, but in taking stock of that, we’ve realized that it’s a time-consuming process that was only getting us into high-end devices, those where device makers felt justified in making the extra investment.”

And besides, he told me, Spotify wants to target users buying devices at all price points, not just the most expensive ones. The other issue, he said, was that updates to these bespoke integrations were not easy. “All that stuff lagged in the innovation cycle,” he said. “Every time we did something new it would take a while for it to come up in new devices.” What this means is that while these existing integrations can continue to be used with Spotify, they won’t work with the Connect service, and they won’t be updated with any other new features, either.

The other important aspect of Spotify’s hardware strategy up to now has been tied up in its relationship with hardware makers that specifically make app-based systems. The biggest of these, and Spotify’s first-ever hardware partner, was Sonos. While Sonos has been a very important partner for Spotify, and de Mul described it as “very awesome,” he also noted that there is “no plan to extend Connect to Sonos and no plan to continue to develop with Sonos” longer term. Part of this goes back to Spotify’s intention to centralise and better control the experience on its service: with Sonos you control the music experience using the Sonos app, and of course Sonos only works with… Sonos, “and we want ubiquity.” Update: Spotify says the quote is taken out of context, in that it cannot share future plans, not that it doesn’t have any at all. “We will continue to support and improve the Spotify experience on Sonos,” a spokesperson noted, once again not confirming any timescale or specifics.

So, some pretty clear signs of Spotify centralizing and consolidatng in the home audio space today, but what is perhaps more interesting is how Spotify Connect will longer term link up with its wider connected device strategy.

The company has been making some inroads with connected cars — for example a deal cut with Ford earlier this year to integrate and stream Spotify music on Ford’s SYNC in-car system. And Spotify has been appearing on connected TVs from the likes of LG and Sony.

Challenges

Car and connected device integrations also fall under the remit of de Mul (who himself worked for Philips before joining Spotify three years ago), and the landscape that he sees ultimately has all of them working in complete synchronicity. There remain some big challenges, however.

The first is whether consumers are interested enough in something like Spotify Connect to pay for the premium app to get it if they don’t have Premium service already. So far, there are no plans to take services like Spotify Connect out from behind the paywall. But that’s not to say it won’t ever happen. “We’re always evaluating putting more services into the free tier,” de Mul noted. “There is always a balancing between what we do for free and what for premium. In the U.S. we already have radio for free on mobile, so we’re trying to have those discussions. You will see more features moving to free.”

The second is whether consumers will be willing to make the investment in devices that will work with Spotify Connect. If Spotify and its investors have the patience, it may also just take time for users to make the leap to buy compatible stereo equipment, since, so far, things like speakers and amplifiers haven’t proven to have the same kind of purchase cycle as a computer or laptop.

The third is whether Spotify will extend this service beyond Wi-Fi and into cellular networks, so that even when Wi-Fi is not present the service could still work — such as in a car. “We are talking to everyone, including carriers,” de Mul said. “Everyone is playing every card.”