He feared his one-bedroom apartment in Redmond, Washington—filled with a mishmash of bargain-bin furniture and DIY shelving made of cinderblocks and wood planks—wasn't representative of his upward mobility. He wasn't a starving student anymore, he was an adult. So Millington did what we all do once we're able: He bought a larger, more elegant apartment and filled it with brand-new stuff.
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 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. That wasn't cutting it for me.
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Around that same time, a Santa Barbara, California, startup called Sonos was hiring engineers. Sonos courted Millington with a simple pitch: It wanted to make digital music players that would look respectable on his "fancier" Ikea shelves, wirelessly access his MP3s without requiring him to touch a PC, and play all of his music in every room of his house.
Millington wanted in. Now, 15 years later, Nick Millington is the chief product officer at Sonos: 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 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 , 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. 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. 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 s—an era when the country was the worldwide epicenter for electronic innovation—that set him on a path toward tech.
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 , where he worked on SharePoint, the software maker's online collaboration platform. When Sonos was founded, in , 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.
Buying Guide: 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. 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 , 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: 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.
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. 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?
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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.
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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 , 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. They had to figure out what microwaves and cordless phones might do to a Sonos player under the same roof. We've curated an impressive selection of beds, coffee tables, dining sets, sectionals, sofas, recliners, accessories and more, so, you can rest assured that you'll find exactly what you want in no time.
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