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Google Strikes Back at Sonos; SmartSpeaker War Gets Ugly

by August 16, 2022
Esposito Takes Care of Sonos Business

Esposito Takes Care of Sonos Business

After losing a decision, Google has struck back at Sonos with new lawsuits of its own. The ongoing copyright infringement struggle between Sonos and Google reveals an uglier side of SmartHome audio technology that dates all the way back to the wireless speaker manufacturer's humble beginnings. Sonos started life as a forward-thinking idea for connected home audio that incorporated way back in 2002 as Rincon Audio Inc. The new company got to work on futuristic IP-connected wireless speaker systems with centralized control that would become the Sonos we know today.

Jobs at ATD 04According to legend, co-founder John McFarlane was making the rounds at industry events with a working prototype of ZonePlayer 100, his company’s first speaker. While giving his pitch at the 2004 D2: All Things Digital conference, MacFarlane was demonstrating remote control functions when he had a nasty encounter with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Enraged by McFarlane’s remote scroll-wheel function, Jobs accused McFarlane of violating Apple patents used in his company’s hot new iPod. Physically poking McFarlane in the chest, Jobs threatened to sue the young company out of existence. It may have been a taste of things to come in the company’s long road forward.

Today, Sonos is no stranger to patent violation claims and its own lawsuits against Google may be part of a larger fight for fair competitive practices in the SmartHome audio market. It’s a fight that pits Sonos against today’s largest tech giants, Google, Amazon and Apple.

In 2013, Sonos began taking out a series of patents specific to home audio networks. Patents included everything from music synchronization to multi-device volume controls. These technologies have since been adopted by other companies, and while Google was first to get sued, allegations of similar violations are not necessarily limited to Google.

Google Chromcast, Chromcast Audio, Nest speakers and even Chromecast dongles and phone apps using Chromecast technology were all part of Sonos patent infringement claim against the search/advertising giant. Sonos claimed that Google lifted much of that technology when it was disclosed to Google during talks to integrate its voice assistant into Sonos. Last January, a US International Trade Commission ruled in favor of Sonos, forcing the tech giant to remove or rejig features into some of its home audio functions.

Sonos’ David may have landed a headshot on Goliath, but it was destined be only an opening salvo in a longer, ugly war. But to Sonos, there are larger principles at stake that may call into question the very existence of certain hulking tech conglomerates.

To tech-giants Apple, Amazon and Google, home audio is an incidental detail in the service of much more lucrative business goals. This is why in 2021, Sonos aired complaints at a Senate antitrust hearing about their dominance of the smart home market. Sonos charges that since all three companies subsidize speakers with revenue drawn from other business groups, Sonos accused them of anti-competitive practices. They may have a point!

Amazon, Apple and Google aren’t as interested in home audio as they are using your voice to mine user-data for advertising and creating new platform for online sales.

Hey, Sonos!

The Man Behind Sonos VoiceSonos speakers integrates Google Assistant, or you can speak to Amazon's Alexa in conjunction with one of Amazon’s speakers. Apple’s Siri integration is limited due to its infamous Walled Garden-effect, but if your Sonos uses AirPlay 2 you can get some Siri functionality. But Sonos has recently fired another shot across the bow of big tech data-mining by developing its own, decidedly closed voice control system. Sonos voice control launched last June, allowing users to control their home audio systems via voice commands with an eye toward consumer privacy. Processing for the voice control of new Sonos speakers transpires entirely inside the device that Sonos promises is not shared to the cloud.

“Sonos Voice Control is processing everything locally,” said Jeff Derderian, VP of product Program Leadership at Sonos on privacy concerns. “There’s not even a place to send anything. That pipeline isn’t even there.”

In a move of total badassery, the voice of Sonos is none-other than actor Giancarlo Esposito. The voice of the only man on Earth that can strike fear in The Boys' Homelander as Vought International CEO Stan Edgar, also known as the gentleman cartel kingpin, Gus Fring from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. His voice is at your service with Sonos. It’s fitting that the character actor with a mastery of understated intimidation represents the voice of a closed system that does not share your data to the cloud from which its rivals may prosper.

Google Strikes Back!

Google clearly isn’t happy with Sonos’ decision to launch its own voice assistant, as well as the little matter of fighting back against IP theft. The company known as Alphabet Inc has filed a tit-for-tat lawsuits against Sonos for its efforts. Two suits filed against Sonos allege infringement on seven separate patents. These patents pertain to Sonos hotword detection, wireless charging and the process around the which wireless speaker should actually respond to a given voice command.

Google spokesperson José Castañeda said the purpose of the lawsuits are to “defend our technology and challenge Sonos’s clear, continued infringement of our patents.” Castañeda said that Sonos had “started an aggressive and misleading campaign against our products, at the expense of our shared customers.”

I wonder how Gus Fring would respond?

Will SmartHome Audio Find Peace in Our Time?

The struggle between Sonos and big tech seems personal in many ways, and it may date all the way back to a 2004 encounter with Steve Jobs. It’s so personal in fact that for now at least, Google would rather roll-back functionality than simply pay Sonos for the use of its patents, certainly not an unprecedented arrangement in consumer electronics. While we don’t know the full details, maybe a licensing settlement is forthcoming. Or maybe it’s become a deeply personal battle to someone at Google! As the old adage suggests, Google’s users are NOT its customers, they’re its product. To Google, depriving users of group a volume control, for a household that invested in a network of Google Nest speakers, gets no more consideration than factory farms give to livestock. This would seem to make buying anything from Google a conflict to that consumer's own interest. But hey, they're cheap!

Antitrust law that ensures fair competition is an important part of global free markets, while breaking up the big tech companies has never been such a popular notion to senators on both sides of the aisle. But it’s a delicate balance that calls for scalpel-like precision, perhaps accomplished by merely enforcing existing law around competitive business practices and IP theft, rather than employing the sledgehammer of heavy-handed big-government policy. Sonos has a valid point, Amazon and Google will steal IP from the very company it undercuts by a wide margin, precisely because its users are not their customers. This battle in the war for smart speaker supremacy is likely to get worse before it gets better. As consumers, we can only hope it ends with fair competition leading to innovation rather than rolled-back features, removal of services and monopolies.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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