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17 January 2020

Sonos sues Google in first major challenge to smart speaker duopoly

Sonos has had enough, and has filed a lawsuit against Google alleging the infringement of its intellectual property in Google’s smart speakers. The dispute stems from an old partnership, and comes as Sonos realizes its days are numbered – as former partners Google and Amazon push it out of the home-audio market. Sonos plans to win the suit against Google, before turning its aim towards Amazon, and if a judge sides with Sonos, it could be a turning point for the current consumer smart home duopoly.

Unfortunately for Sonos, which doesn’t have the cash to tackle both Amazon and Google simultaneously, these titans could just drag the case out and smother Sonos with legal costs. But, it seems that Sonos is pretty sure of its future success, according to comments CEO Patrick Spence has made.

“Google is an important partner with whom we have collaborated successfully for years, including bringing the Google Assistant to the Sonos platform last year. However, Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology in creating its audio products. Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We’re left with no choice but to litigate in the interest of protecting our inventions, our customers, and the spirit of innovation that’s defined Sonos from the beginning.”

Sonos now goes as far as calling its 2013 partnership with Google ‘naïve,’ and says it has issued Google and Amazon with several warnings. It has failed to strike any sort of licensing agreement, but might also have sensed blood in the water – as regulators and legal institutions begin turning on the tech titans, having tired of their repeated offences.

Amazon’s recent Ring controversies will help Sonos’ case, and Google has just been hit with a sextortion campaign that targeted Nest camera owners that was discovered by Mimecast. The two companies have not exactly racked up PR wins in the past few months, and now might be the best time for Sonos to strike.

On the one hand, this might be just a patent dispute, one like many others the technology industry sees annually, which usually resolves itself by way of a licensing agreement between the two parties and some sort of cash payment to rectify past grievances. However, sometimes these cases explode, leading to very expensive legal showdowns – and Sonos’ allegations that Google is selling these devices as loss-leaders is going to raise the eyebrows of anyone with an antitrust bent.

“The harm produced by Google’s infringement has been profoundly compounded by Google’s business strategy to use its multi-room audio products to vacuum up invaluable consumer data from users and, thus, further entrench the Google platform among its users and ultimately fuel its dominant advertising and search platforms. In furtherance of this strategy, Google has not merely copied Sonos’ patented technology, it has also subsidized the prices of its patent infringing products, including at the entry level, and flooded the market.”

But the case could also lay the groundwork for a redressing of the current duopoly in the consumer smart home market. If a judgement was suitably scathing, it could force Google and Amazon to dismantle their islands and open the market back up to rival competitor approaches.

However, such an outcome might actually be a bad thing. The smart home has collectively been delayed by a lack of scale, and Google and Amazon were the ones that finally cracked the problem at hand – that no one had sufficient scale to bring about a mass-market offering. If these platforms were ordered to be burned to the ground, by a particularly fiery judge, the damage done to the market could be stark.

Regardless of the two possibilities, the case should prompt Amazon and Google to make changes to their smart speaker software stacks. Music and simple questions were the key initial use cases that drove smart speaker adoption, which then created platforms to build smart home applications on top of. If it turns out that Sonos was key to this initial success, then it certainly is owed some redress.

But Sonos did miss the boat. It had complete dominance in the wireless home audio market, but never managed to integrate smart home applications itself. Sure, turning to Google and then Amazon was an attempt to enter that ecosystem, but there was no reason that Sonos could not have become a gatekeeper of sorts.

Now, the onslaught of no-name generic rivals and the established threat from Amazon and Google have knocked Sonos down a few pegs. It is still a leader, but now consumers looking for a home audio setup are going to be making decisions along smart home lines – and Sonos is behind the curve there.

Sonos should win the patent battle. It has been in this game since the mid-2000s, and has stated that it shared intellectual property with Google as part of that Google Assistant development partnership. It is now saying that Google copied its IP, and has used that as leverage to become a market leader, and is now calling for sales of the Google Home and Google Home Mini to be halted in the US, due to their infringing five patents.

If this goes to court, it could be quite painful for Google. It would not surprise us if a settlement is reached behind closed doors, which would compensate Sonos for the alleged infringement of the techniques to synchronize audio streams and experiences across multiple devices within a home – syncing multiple device clocks and network connections, drumming to the same beat.

In any case, Google’s initial response has been muted. It has said that it is “disappointed that Sonos brought these lawsuits instead of continuing negotiations in good faith. We dispute these claims and will defend them vigorously.”