With Defeat to Sonos, Google to Remove Smart Speaker Functionality

Posted on January 7, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Google, Music + Videos, Smart Home, Sonos with 44 Comments

Google alerted customers that it will remove features from its smart speakers and displays because they infringe on Sonos patents. The news comes in the wake of an International Trade Commission (ITC) ruling that found that Google’s products infringe on five Sonos patents.

“Due to a recent legal ruling we’re making some changes to how you set up your devices and the Speaker Group functionality will work moving forward,” the Google Nest team posted in the Google Nest Community forums. “If you’re using the Speaker Group feature to control the volume in the Google Home app, by voice with the Google Assistant, or directly on your Nest Hub display, you’ll notice a few changes.”

And by changes, Google means a loss of functionality:

  • Users will no longer be able to adjust the volume of multiple sets of speakers in a group using a single control. Instead, they will need to adjust the volume of each speaker individually.
  • Users will no longer be able to adjust the volume of multiple sets of speakers in a group using their phone’s physical volume buttons.
  • Speaker groups that include non-Google brands of Cast-based devices—like those from JBL, Lenovo, and others—need to be upgraded to the latest Cast firmware version (1.52.272222). They will not work normally until users perform this upgrade. (You can learn how to do this here.)
  • “A small set of users” will have to use a “Device Utility app” (DUA) to complete product installation and updates. Those impacted should receive a prompt to download and run the DUA, and it will ensure that your device is connected to Wi-Fi and receives the most updated software version. I assume this means an app from the hardware maker, which indicates that central control and/management of these devices will no longer work from the Google Home app as before.

To say that Google’s customers are unhappy with these changes—especially the first two—is an understatement: the comments to this post are full of people who say they purchased Google-based smart devices specifically for this functionality.

But this is, perhaps, the tip of the iceberg: the ITC ruled that Google infringed on five Sonos patents, so Google will need to make other changes too. And Sonos has two other patent infringement cases pending, which could lead to further diminished functionality from Google’s smart speaker and display products (and phones, laptops, and Chromecasts, too).

Join the discussion!


Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Comments (44)

44 responses to “With Defeat to Sonos, Google to Remove Smart Speaker Functionality”

  1. yoshi

    Super happy that I ditched all my Echo devices for Google devices. Just fantastic, really.

  2. aljfischer

    Cue the class action lawsuit where lawyers make bank and we get a $10 store credit.

  3. Brazbit

    A few more court decisions like this and "Googling It" will have a whole new definition.

    Jim was caught cheating on his wife. Did you hear how much he is going to have to pay in the divorce?

    Oh Man. Did he ever Google that one.

    Totally Googled it...

  4. IanYates82

    It's a dumb patent.

    It's core claim isn't that I can group multiple speakers. It's that I can use a single volume control to adjust the group

    At least that seems to be the case given that's the function google is removing. They're not removing speaker groups entirely which is what I assume would happen when they lost

    • train_wreck

      Was gonna say exactly that. Idiotic patents like this should have never been approved. Seriously, “changing volume on more than one speaker at the same time” ?? And of course in the end it’s consumers who really lose.

      • Philotech Mueller

        Fully agree.

        Looking forward to Sonos successfully sueing every company manufacturing amps powering stereo speakers because, essentially, that controlling a group of two speakers... (here you should find a blinking emoji, but I just don't feel like it considering the actual case at hand...)

        • wright_is

          Not really, they aren’t controlling a group of speakers over wi-if with a smartphone app, they are, generally, controlling the output voltages of the amplifier itself.

          And, according to Sonos, other streaming speaker manufacturers are already licensing the patent, so they can do this. Google refused to license the patents they were infringing, instead.

          • mike2thel73

            I agree with wright. Google didn't come to an agreement to license these specific patents so they took the risk of not paying thinking they were going to win. Think again. Sometimes it's better to just pay the fee. I guess Google thought their customer base wouldn't be willing to pay more.

  5. markdj

    This only goes to prove how idiotic and broken the patent system is.

  6. scovious

    Imagine a trillion dollar technology company removing promised functionality from their customers' products instead of paying simple royalties that they owe to the rightful creator the original technology. Can they afford to pay Sonos? Yes. Will Google do the right thing? Never.

  7. ghostrider

    This reminds me of the way Apple, somehow, managed to patent the scrolling 'bounce back' you got when hitting the end screen in a list. It's a logical response from a device, but the US patent office somehow managed to agree to it, so others who implemented even remotely similar responses had to change their implementations, and it only effects the user of the device at the end of the day.

    AFAIC, patents should be reserved for hardware, ie, physical things, like they always used to be. Implementing a software patent is very difficult and tricky, as it can be interpreted in many ways. If someone writes some code and copyrights that exact code, if you lift it and use it elsewhere without approval, then fine, that's copyright theft, but this is very different.

  8. crunchyfrog

    Google's a pretty big company. Big companies usually just buy up the smaller ones and raid the patent folder.

    • Dan

      Sonos is a publicly traded company with a $4B market cap. To buy them would cost at least a 50% premium, and they stock is just going up on these rulings.

      • cnc123

        Chump change for Google, though them buying Sonos would be the worst possible outcome. The products might get cheaper for a couple of years, and then they would get bored and kill the whole platform, either directly or through negligence.

  9. red.radar

    It would seem that other companies decided to pay the license fee.

    I find it strange that Google is going through the effort to harm their customers and remove functionality. It would seem to be a counterproductive decision to their business line. I would have expect them to pay the license fee and move on.

    From a Customer viewpoint it just looks like you shouldn't but Google Hardware.

    • mattbg

      The reason could be related to the reason that Microsoft didn't include DVD codecs (and now doesn't include HEVC codecs) in Windows - they have to pay for every copy despite most people probably not using the functionality.

      Google uses these things as loss-leaders while Apple and Sonos sell them to make a profit on them.

      Aside, as much as my dislike for Google is deepening, it does seem odd to me that you need to license a patent in order to control the volume of multiple devices at once from a mobile device. It reminds me of Amazon patenting the 1-click checkout feature :)

      • Patrick3D

        Microsoft sells those codecs in the Microsoft Store app, they just don't give them away for free (eating the cost) like they used to.

      • wright_is

        The reason could be related to the reason that Microsoft didn't include DVD codecs (and now doesn't include HEVC codecs) in Windows - they have to pay for every copy despite most people probably not using the functionality.

        Google uses these things as loss-leaders while Apple and Sonos sell them to make a profit on them.

        Not exactly, in Microsoft's case, they would need to pay the patent license for each copy of Windows sold, whether the user watches DVDs or HEVC content. In Google's case, the patents are core to the use of the products - the first case is about the group settings patent, but I believe the other pending cases include general streaming of content. Without those patent licenses, and thus functionality, the devices will be useless.

        The law doesn't care if you are selling something as a loss-leader, patent infringement is patent infringement, whether you make money on it or not.

        • jimchamplin

          But is it really patent infringement if the patent system is hot garbage?

          Of course, El Goog being an entity that profits greatly from this regime, will defend the system even if it rules against them.

          • wright_is

            The system is the system. Whether it is broken or not, for a valid patent, you have to pay, if you want to use it, or don’t do whatever is included in the patent.

            Google has also sued others in the past for infringing it’s patents. They even sued BT in the past for patent infringement.

            If they think the system is wrong or the patents are invalid, they can try and get the patents rescinded by the patent’s office.

  10. pungkuss

    Can you imagine being allowed to get a patent allowing you to be the only company to do grouped things like these. The patent system in the US is a joke. Its not how you implement it, its that you have it at all. They say Echo devices is infringing as well, but they only wanted to take on one at a time. This means that the same could be done of Amazon.

    • wright_is

      They aren't the only ones who can do this, but those that want to do it have to pay Sonos for the privilege. The other manufacturers allegedly do that, Google not so much.

    • Patrick3D

      Can you imagine not licensing some patents that everyone else licenses and just selling infringing products with the expectation that courts will bow to the size of your corporation? Apple and Google want people to license their patents but throw a hissy fit when they are forced to license someone else's.

  11. LT1 Z51

    This reminds me of how Amazon patented the "One Click Checkout" function. The US Patent system when it comes to software based technology is broken, it was designed in an era of physical parts and processes and the idea that a software process is patentable is a little ridiculous (it does make sense you can patent a manufacturing process or a coding algorithm though).

  12. Brett Barbier

    Apple's Airplay stuff has similar features too - I wonder if they are next for Sonos? I just checked and Sonos currently has about a $30 billion market cap. One of these companies may just swallow them up.

    • wright_is

      AFAIK, Apple already pay a licensing fee for the tech. Certainly Sonos have said other manufacturers correctly license it, Google decided not to.

  13. Bart

    It is a shame the consumer is the one that loses out here. But it is up to google to do the right thing and license the patents, so functionality can be restored. It is only the right thing.

  14. anoldamigauser

    Google's business model is basically, "All of your bases are belong to us." Whether it is news sites, personal data, or intellectual property, they just sort of scrape it and put it in their products.

    Does it make their products uniquely functional? Yes.

    Is it remotely ethical? Not so much.

  15. doubledeej

    Nobody is going to criticize Sonos for enforcing such silly patents?

    • ghostrider

      An utterly stupid patent - pointless infact (like most of the patent system). People who buy high end devices like Sonus aren't going to look at Google Chromecast devices, and people who buy Chromecast devices aren't suddenly going to buy Sonus for this one, tiny feature - different people, different markets. It just forces Google to make changes to their products that affect functionality for *their* customers. Sonus were always a bit stuck up, and this confirms it. If I ever was going to consider buying Sonus, I definintely won't now.

      • wright_is

        Not exactly. It is the same market - streaming speakers. And this is how the patent system works (or should work, if we discount patent trolls). Sonos came up with a way of combining speakers into groups and centrally controlling them, they patented it.

        Others want to use the same technology, they take out patent licenses (like many other companies have done, according to Sonos, which is probably why Apple isn't currently being sued). Sonos offers these patents, allegedly under FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Disciminatory).

        Google decided that it didn't need to bother licensing the patents it was using, which means it is infringing them and thus ends up getting sued - Sonos have no other choice, they have to sue, when they discover an infringement and the infringer won't license the patents, otherwise they lose the patent.

    • cnc123

      Nobody is going to criticize Google for stealing the technology of a tiny company who wasn't even a competitor?

      • doubledeej

        Controlling the volume of multiple speakers simultaneously is hardly new and innovative. That has been going on since the beginning of time in the audio world. Sonos is dumb for applying for such an obvious patent, and even dumber for enforcing it.

        Sonos is a terrible company producing overpriced mediocre gear. They’ve already shown us that they’re out to screw everyone, including their customers. And this kind of behavior kind of emphasizes that. I wouldn’t be sad if they went away.

        • Travelrobert

          The infringement is not THAT you control multiple speakers - it's HOW. Google didn't invent their own way (as many other Sonos competitors have done) - they "stole" Sonos way to do it.

          It's okay to make your own operating system. Anyone can make an operating system. But if you take the code from Windows and create your system and call it "Doors" - that is copyright infringement.

          You just have to create the functionality your own way OR make a deal with the inventor of an existing system to use their way.

          • wright_is

            Not exactly. Those other competitors didn't necessarily find another way of doing it, many of them licensed the right to do it the same way as Sonos, according to their press-release.

            And we are talking about the method for doing something here, the patent, not the code itself (copyright).

      • ghostrider

        I'd hardly call it 'stealing' - It's just implementing similar tech on grouped devices to make it easier for the user. It's not as though Google pinched their code or anything, it's just a logical feature to have on devices that work this way.

        • Dan

          That's exactly what the court case said. Google met with Sonos a decade ago about their technology, Sonos showed them how it worked and the inside special sauce, Google decided not to pay them. In the end it was shown that Google stole the code by implementing the exact same technology. All proven in a court of law. Don't like it then vote new people into office that can make a difference.

        • wright_is

          They didn't steal the code, that would be a copyright infringement, they "stole", or rather copied, the method of controlling the devices, which is a patent. That is very much illegal in the USA.

    • kingpcgeek

      They are a public company. As such it is their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to defend all company assets, which patents are. To not do so would be malfeasance.

      • jaunty

        You have just borrowed Leo Laporte's tiresome answer of fidooshy-wooshy responsibility, citing a few big words of business mumbo jumbo. But that's OK, he just borrowed them from someone else too as he does with most things in fairness.

      • doubledeej

        Lots of companies don’t litigate their patents, especially when it isn’t a competitor. They’re choosing to be evil.

        I can’t stand Google, but I’m on their side on this one. Sonos is being dumb enforcing an obvious patent that shouldn’t have ever been granted against a non-competitor. Evil.

        • wright_is

          All companies have to do it. Or they lose the trademark/patent.

          The difference is, most other streaming speaker manufacturers have licensed the patents, so they can produce competing products. Google decided they didn't need to license the patents and just infringed upon them instead.

          I'm very much against frivolous patents and patent trolls, sorry, non-practicing entities, but in this case, the patents make up the back-bone of the Sonos products. They have licensed the technology to others at, allegedly, reasonable rates. This is how the patent system is supposed to work.

          Those that infringe on the patents either have to pay up and buy a license or cease and desist - or they get taken to court. Which is what happened in this case.

        • GustavP

          If a company does not defend their patent they risk losing it in future litigation/court cases.

  16. Ogugg

    Maybe users that want to have those functionality can pay an add-on for using the patented features (via Google Store or as an InApp purchase in the app itself...)

Leave a Reply