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OK Google, meet Alexa: Interoperability emerges as key antitrust issue

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Eddie Lazarus at the hearing

Eddie Lazarus, Sonos's chief legal officer, said that voice interoperability is only one of a number of issues Sonos wants regulators to address.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus came to Washington on Tuesday to demand legislative action against Google and Amazon. He walked away with an informal invitation from Google's senior public policy director, Wilson White, to talk things over.

"I already [emailed] Wilson," Lazarus told Protocol following a subcommittee hearing attended by both men. "If he's serious, we're going to go up there and do it."

The issue that led to White's unexpected gesture — in addition to facing off in Washington, the two companies are currently battling each other in court over alleged patent infringement — is voice assistant interoperability.

Google has long told device makers that it won't allow them to run the company's Google Assistant if they simultaneously offer access to competing voice assistants. For Sonos, this means that its customers have to choose between making Amazon's Alexa or the Google Assistant the default voice assistant for its microphone-equipped smart speakers.

That's not how the company would like to handle this issue. Sonos has developed technology that allows the concurrent use of multiple voice assistants, effectively leaving it to end users to choose whether they call on Alexa or the Google Assistant to handle certain tasks. That way, someone could ask Google for the weather, and then tell Alexa to add something to their Amazon shopping list, simply by using different wake words.

"Google contractually prohibits us from using that technology," Lazarus told lawmakers Tuesday. "You can't mix and match between the big companies."

Pressed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the issue, White defended Google's approach. "We are trying to balance the interoperability with other things we care about, which is the user experience, [...] privacy, security," he said.

White admitted that Google is allowing two simultaneous assistants on select Samsung phones, but implied that this wasn't easily replicable for smart speakers. "There are some technical challenges around having two voice assistants that are listening at the same time," he said.

Lazarus disagreed. "We have the technology that solves the problems that he described," he said, adding that Sonos had offered to demonstrate it to Google in the past, and had in fact shown it to regulators around the world.

This gave White an opening for his surprisingly public overture. "Early in my career I was an engineer, so I'd love the opportunity personally to see the demo," he said. White also signaled that Google's official position on the issue could change. "This will evolve," he said. "We will get to a place where we are bringing more innovation to consumers."

It's worth noting that not all tech companies are as protective of their voice assistants as Google. Amazon in particular has been a proponent of a more open approach; the company founded the Voice Interoperability Initiative to promote solutions similar to that developed by Sonos.

However, Lazarus suggested that this was an easy position for Amazon to take, given Google's refusal to play ball. "Because of Google's stance, Amazon's Voice Interoperability Initiative is an onramp into the Amazon ecosystem," he said.

Lazarus also told Protocol that voice interoperability is only one of a number of issues Sonos wants regulators to address. Other points of contention brought up during Tuesday's hearing included tech companies selling smart home products below cost, and allegedly pressuring smaller companies to give up trade secrets in order to integrate with their smart home platforms. These issues may be much harder to resolve than whether Alexa and Google Assistant can be accessed concurrently.

"This is an easy one, but one that would be great for consumers," Lazarus said.

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