John MacFarlane, CEO of Sonos, resigned Tuesday. As Nick Wingfield writes comprehensively in The New York Times, 15-year-old Sonos is rare in the hardware world: It was bootstrapped by its founder, has remained independent and private, and operates far from the glitz of L.A. or the glare of Silicon Valley.
At first blush, MacFarlane’s exit seems as much personal as professional. It’s also tempting to see his departure from the top job as a moment of crisis for the company that’s known for high-quality speakers that stream music from all the hippest Internet services. Artificial intelligence is changing everything, and Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Sonos needs to decide how AI will guide its product roadmap. Already the company works with Amazon’s Alexa voice-recognition software, but it’s not clear that throwing in with a competitor is a long-term benefit.
There’s another way to view the news. MacFarlane has been one of those stubborn founder-CEOs who simply didn’t like the idea of going public. So much is desirable about running a company without publishing quarterly results and all the other distractions of a public listing. And yet, Sonos raised serious cash from venture-capital and private-equity investors, including Index Ventures, KKR, and others. Someday those investors need their return, and MacFarlane stepping aside could be a sign that Sonos is closer to being ready to giving it to them.
The lower end of the speaker business isn’t an easy one. For a while it looked like Jawbone’s Jambox would own the segment, but that product fizzled. Now Amazon itself is flexing its muscles with its good-enough Echo device. A change at the top just might signal a new sense of urgency at Sonos.
Note to self: If you’re going to mock a corporate name makeover, get the name right. I wrote yesterday that “Altbaba,” what I mistook for Yahoo’s new moniker for the leftovers of its assets, was a stinker. That formulation isn’t so bad compared with what Yahoo’s actually going with: Altaba. I apologize for the error.
BITS AND BYTES
Samsung leader Jay Y. Lee is summoned in South Korean scandal. Prosecutors are investigating whether Samsung’s contributions to a business and foundations backed by President Park Geun-hye’s friend were related to the government’s decision to back the merger of two Samsung group affiliates in 2015. South Korea’s parliament has already voted to impeach Park, and prosecutors are considering indictments against others. (Fortune)
Facebook will test ads in the middle of videos. The social network is piloting a program to show advertisements “mid-roll”—in the middle of a video segment rather than the beginning—in a bid to generate new revenue, reports Recode. A separate dispatch, from AdvertisingAge, suggests that Instagram will also experiment with the same idea. (Fortune)
LinkedIn, eBay founders launch artificial intelligence research initiative. Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic investment firm are spearheading the creation of the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, which will focus on encouraging ethical design and AI software the “works in the public interest.” (VentureBeat)
Al Gore’s former business partner is back with another Web venture. Joel Hyatt, who co-founded “user-generated content” video pioneer Current TV with the former Vice President, is launching a “marketplace” site for professional services. The venture, Globality, is seeks to offer a speedier alternative to how large businesses typically hire consultants (Fortune)
Wells Fargo wants to make its ATMs card-free. The bank is adding a feature to its mobile app that will provide account holders with a special code they can use to make ATM transactions without their debit card, reports CNNMoney. The service could be introduced by the spring. Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase are said to be considering similar offerings. (Fortune)
Fitbit buys more smartwatch expertise. Just one month after buying Kickstarter phenom Pebble, the fitness wearables leader is acquiring European firm Vector Watch, which sells a line of luxury products. As with the Pebble buyout, Fitbit doesn’t plan to update the acquired company’s existing smartwatches. It’s after software that can help make its own offerings more compelling. (Fortune)
Apple could be planning snazzy smart glasses. The secretive tech giant is mum but blogger Robert Scoble reports that Apple is teaming up with German optical instruments company Carl Zeiss on a wearable device that will support augmented reality applications. (Fortune)
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Tesla hires Apple’s open source guru to lead autonomous software project. Chris Lattner, an 11-year veteran, was in charge of Apple’s well-received Swift programming language. Apple released Swift in 2014 to improve its standing among third-party developers, and convince more of them to create apps. His official role at the electric vehicle company is vice president of Autopilot, the technology behind Tesla’s self-driving car ambitions. (Fortune)
Red Hat exec defects to IPO-bound cloud unicorn Anaplan. Longtime Silicon Valley finance executive Frank A. Calderoni will fill the top job at the company, which has been vacant since former CEO Frederic Laluyaux abruptly resigned early last year. Calderoni most recently was CFO at Red Hat, but previously held that role at Cisco Systems and SanDisk. Anaplan specializes in software for financial planning. (Reuters)
Former Reddit CEO returns to venture capital. Ellen Pao, the ex-Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner whose 2012 gender discrimination lawsuit against the venture firm fueled a debate over tech industry diversity, has joined Oakland-based Kapor Center for Social Impact as an investor and diversity advocate. (Reuters)
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
How Companies Use Social Media When Taking Your Call, by Jeff John Roberts
It’s Not Just Altaba. Here Are the 7 Worst Company Name Changes, by Lucinda Shen
Flash Storage Startup Kaminario Nets $75 Million in New Funding, by Barb Darrow
Here Are Apple’s Plans for ‘Carpool Karaoke’, by Don Reisinger
You Can Now Download an Artificial Intelligence Doctor, by Sy Mukherjee
ONE MORE THING
Meet Rose, a sassy bot concierge in Las Vegas. The Cosmopolitan hotel is encouraging guests to text their requests for towels and tickets to a virtual assistant endowed with a salty personality worthy of Glitter Gulch. (Travel+Leisure)