Sonos introduces universal search across music services in new mobile controller app

Five years after launching its first iOS (S AAPL) app, internet-connected speaker maker Sonos is finally getting ready to give its mobile experience a complete overhaul. The new controller app features a universal search functionality, making it possible to discover artists through one service and then keep listening through another.

Sonos is making the new app available on Android (S GOOG) as an open beta test first, and will bring out an iOS app as well as a final version of the Android app later this spring. The company wants to relaunch its desktop controller app later this year. Sonos Director of User Experience Research Mark Trammell told me during a recent interview that the usage of the Sonos desktop app is dropping quickly. New users in particular primarily controlling their speakers through the mobile app, which is why the company decided to focus on mobile first for this relaunch.

A quick first test of the universal search feature

I’ve had a chance to play with the app a bit on Monday, and liked what I saw. With the previous Sonos app, users essentially had to decide the source of content first, and then figure out what they wanted to listen to from that particular library. Now, you just search for a title, and get results from all the services you have authorized to use with Sonos.

That’s particularly useful if you combine a more radio-like service like Pandora (S P) with a full-fledged music subscription service. For example, I could listen to the downtempo genre station on Pandora, and upon finding a track from Prefuse 73, I could then browse the dozen or so Prefuse 73 albums and tracks on Rdio, which I’m a subscriber of.

The new app also more directly integrates podcasts, which are served up through TuneIn radio. It’s still not a perfect podcast integration, but a step up from the previous version, where podcasts basically got lost in the mix. Aside from that, the design is also much better, and the app simply looks a lot more pleasing and a lot less like a mobile version of Winamp.

During my admittedly limited time that I had to play with the new app, I only really found one downside: When searching for content, the Sonos app offers no fewer than ten categories, ranging from artists to albums to stations to composer, and sometimes, you need to swipe through all of them to get where you want to. It would be great if one could customize which categories to display and which to omit.

Third-party app support may become more widely available

When I reviewed the new $200 Sonos Play-1 speaker last year, I reserved a fair share of criticism for the company’s mobile app. This new app makes for a much better experience, but it still doesn’t address one key issue, which is support for third-party apps. Even with an improved integration, the Rdio experience within the Sonos app, for example, still isn’t as good as Rdio’s own app. So why not give Rdio, and other music services, the ability to add Sonos support to their own apps?

Sonos launched this kind of third-party support for the Chinese messaging app QQ last year, giving users the ability to play content on a Sonos device directly from a chat window. Sonos co-founder and VP or Marketing Tom Cullen told me that the company saw this as a way to test this kind of integration with a large user base, and that the results were encouraging. “We found this to be a very compelling experience for the consumer,” he said, adding that company is open to giving other services the same capabilities. The last thing Sonos wanted to do was to become a gatekeeper, he said.

Check out more screenshots of the new app below: