Last week, the International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled that Google infringed five patents held by Sonos, related to the creation and control of speaker arrays. The ITC issued an order that would have restricted the importation and sale of a variety of the company’s Nest smart speakers.
Sonos, predictably, declared it a complete victory because its patents were upheld as valid, and the ITC acknowledged that Google stole its technology for use in its own products. The company hoped that Google would pay it a royalty for the infringing technology.
Turns out, it might not be such a win after all — for anyone involved. Indeed, instead of paying a royalty to Sonos, Google has decided to simply send a software update to the products in question to remove the capabilities that are covered by the patents.
That’s right, Google is about to intentionally make its products worse for users because it’d rather not pay Sonos a royalty for the technology it’s hijacked.
To be clear, Sonos is not a patent troll. These are companies that grab patents and only exist to sue companies that infringe on their intellectual property without ever releasing their own products. Sonos makes many products, many of which are considered best-in-class.
They got it because Sonos puts a lot of effort into developing the technology so it can compete with much bigger companies, like Google.
In 2013, as Google considered how it could run its music streaming service on Sonos speakers, the latter company gave the search giant a glimpse of its technology. At the time, that didn’t seem like a big deal. Google didn’t make speakers, and it wasn’t in the smart home business at all.
It will take another year before buying Nest to get into the hardware business. Sonos says that as a result of this internal scrutiny, Google “blatantly and knowingly” copied its technology and included it in its own products.
The technology in question concerns the possibility of connecting speakers in groups and controlling their volume. Sonos sued Google and asked the ITC to block the sale of Google’s products that infringe its patents.
The logical conclusion – and the one Sonos had hoped for – was that Google would agree or be forced to pay a fee for using the technology. That would certainly have been the best outcome for Sonos, as well as users. Arguably, it would have been best for Google as well, which could have continued to include features that customers have grown accustomed to.
Instead, Google decided to remove the capabilities altogether. Here’s what Google had to say in a blog post:
Due to a recent court ruling, we’re making some changes to how you set up your devices and [how] the Speaker Group feature will work in the future. If you use the Speaker Group feature to control 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.
That’s an understatement. When Google says “you’ll notice some changes” it means the thing you bought won’t do what it did when you paid for it. For example, these changes mean that you will no longer be able to control the volume of a group of speakers. Instead, you’ll have to change the volume on each individually. It also means that you will no longer be able to use your phone’s volume buttons to control a group of speakers.
That might not seem like a big deal, except that Google marketed its products with the ability to do these things, and people bought these speakers expecting them to do what was promised. Instead of doing the right thing, which would be to pay a fee to Sonos, Google decided to remove features, making the user experience worse.
It’s surprising that Google (or any company, for that matter) is so stubborn that it makes its own products worse to use just to avoid paying what is most certainly an insignificant amount of money for a company of the size of Google. Basically, Google lost a fight, failed, and decided to take their toys and go home. The problem is that he has already sold these toys to customers and he intentionally breaks them.
I’m sure there’s no love lost between Google and Sonos, but breaking your own products — especially ones that your customers have already purchased — takes the naughtiness to a whole new level.
Then again, I don’t know which is worse – being surprised that a company is making its products worse, or the idea that a company is doing that and it’s not surprising at all. Either way, making your customers worse off is the one thing no business should ever do.