In Sonos' war with Google, customers are the real losers

The patent dispute between Sonos and Google is far from resolved, but some device owners already had enough.

Nest Audio speakers

Installing and using some of Google’s products just got a little bit more difficult.

Photo: Google

It took Google mere hours to roll out a technical fix after the International Trade Commission sided with Sonos Thursday in the company’s ongoing patent dispute. By tweaking some setup and control functionality of its smart speakers and displays, Google aims to avoid an import ban that could otherwise go into effect in less than 60 days.

However, the changes aren’t going over well with owners of affected devices. “I believe a rebate is in order, your devices no longer work as advertised,” reads the most upvoted comment in response to a Google post announcing the changes. “So you got sued by Sonos and we pay the price? Either get some better lawyers and win the suit or pay Sonos a royalty or start issuing refunds to customers,” wrote another commenter.

Thursday’s decision came two years after Sonos had first raised the issue with the ITC. In its final finding, the commission agreed that Google had violated five Sonos patents, and issued an import ban for smart speakers and displays as well as other Google hardware, including Pixel phones, pending a 60-day presidential review.

Google’s response was to disable the ability to control the volume of a group of speakers simultaneously. The company also launched a dedicated Android app to set up a range of smart speaker, streaming and smart TV devices outside of the Google Home app, which is normally used for this functionality. Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda told Protocol that this would only affect a small subsection of consumers who were trying to install devices that didn’t have the latest firmware installed yet.

The app in question has been downloaded over 5,000 times since Thursday, according to Google Play Store data, suggesting that it has indeed not yet affected many people. However, those who had to jump through the extra hoop weren’t exactly happy about it. The app had an average rating of just 1.2 stars Monday, with people complaining about a “painful installation experience.” Many reviewers noted that they couldn’t get the app to work at all, bringing one reviewer to beg: “Dear Google, pay Sonos the royalty!”

As the dispute is starting to affect consumers, not everyone appears to be siding with Sonos. Some of the people commenting on Google’s announcement questioned the validity of the patents at the center of the dispute. A few people also simply expressed general frustration directed at all parties involved. “A simple FUCK YOU to whoever applicable,” wrote one commenter.

There is a theoretical chance that Google could get a reprieve from the ITC decision, which would allow the company to undo these changes. The commission’s decision set off a 60-day presidential review period, during which the verdict could technically get nixed. However, affected smart speaker owners shouldn’t hold their breath for Joe Biden to sweep in. First, since 2005, presidential reviews aren’t actually handled by the president himself, but by the U.S. trade representative acting on his behalf.

Second, presidential vetoes of ITC decisions are exceedingly rare. The most recent case was in 2013, when the U.S. trade representative threw out an import ban on iPhones and iPads that Samsung had lobbied for as part of its long-running patent dispute with Apple. Prior to that, only five ITC decisions had ever gotten nixed by the president.

If the ITC’s verdict stands, Google still has the option to appeal it in federal court, where it is also currently battling Sonos in two related patent-infringement lawsuits. “We plan to seek further review and will continue to defend ourselves against Sonos’ baseless claims as well as assert our intellectual property rights where Sonos is misusing our technology,” Castaneda told Protocol.

This will likely result in Google having to keep its workarounds in place for the time being, or redesign features in a way that they don’t add to a growing consumer backlash while also not running afoul of the patents that were part of the ITC decision. Of course, Google could also decide to settle the lawsuit with Sonos and agree to pay a licensing fee.

Or the company could follow a more creative suggestion. Following numerous calls to “pay Sonos” in the aforementioned comment thread, someone countered: “Don’t pay Sonos, buy Sonos.”


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