Sonos’ Patent Win Will Change Google’s Smart Speakers—for Now

On Thursday, the US International Trade Commission, which rules on import laws, determined that Alphabet-owned Google infringed on audio technology patents held by smart speaker company Sonos, a significant win for Sonos in a two-year long David v. Goliath lawsuit. The Commission said that Google has infringed on five Sonos patents, and issued a “limited exclusion order” prohibiting the import of certain audio technologies, controllers, and components made by Google.

Google, unsurprisingly, says it’s not backing down: It plans to appeal, and has 60 days to do so before the ITC’s ruling goes into effect. Sonos, meanwhile, has two patent infringement cases against Google still pending in federal court. “Those two pending lawsuits are important, because the ITC doesn’t have the authority to award damages,” says Peter Toren, a Washington, D.C.-based intellectual property lawyer.

But Google clearly anticipated this might be the outcome of the ITC’s review, because back in August 2021 the company presented a series of product redesigns to ITC judge Charles Bullock, who determined the proposed workarounds would not infringe on Sonos’s patents. On the heels of the ITC ruling yesterday, Google shared some of the changes it’s making to its smart speakers.

So how does the ITC’s ruling, which has the potential to block all imports of certain products unless Google complies, affect the product experience? For one, the changes Google will roll out apply to Google smart speakers and Nest Hub displays. Google hasn’t provided a full list of affected devices, so it’s unclear how or whether this affects other Google products, such as Pixel phones or Chromebooks. The updates will roll out “in the coming days,” according to spokesperson Nicol Addison. And for now, the updates are all software-based.

Google says the ability to adjust speaker volume by group will go away; customers will now need to adjust each speaker’s volume individually. And, “you’ll also no longer be able to change your Speaker Group volume using your phone’s physical volume button,” the company says. Casting functions will also be affected on non-Google smart devices with Chromecast built in, such as those made by Lenovo or JBL, unless the speakers are updated to the latest firmware. And some users will no longer experience automatic software updates on their smart speakers; instead, they’ll have to download and install a Device Utility app. This will “ensure your device is connected to Wi-Fi and receives the most updated software version,” Google says.

These may seem like relatively small changes, but a large part of the appeal of multiroom wireless smart speakers—a market Sonos helped pioneer back when it first launched 20 years ago—is the ability to sync up multiple speakers and control them simultaneously. Some of that ease-of-use will be eliminated with these changes.

The ITC’s ruling could also affect future Google designs. And more changes could come down the line, depending on the outcomes of the federal lawsuits. (One of those, which was filed in US District Court in Los Angeles, is on pause until the ITC decision is finalized, according to The New York Times. The other case, which was filed in US District Court in San Francisco, is proceeding.)

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