The ongoing lawsuit between Google and Sonos probably isn’t in the forefront of anyone's mind right now, but after recently digging into a change YouTube made for the worse on its Chromecast app, I can’t really stop thinking about it. Did you know that if you have a Pixel phone and need to reset a Chromecast or connect it to a new Wi-Fi network, you’re basically screwed? One of the most popular streaming dongles in the world, noted for its simplicity and ease of use, now offers an inconsistent and degraded experience, adding to the other deficiencies Google itself announced for its Nest and Home speakers when it comes to volume adjustments and groups, taking away features and functionality customers paid for.
I get the “why” behind how this happened: Sonos had patents, a court decided that Google had violated them, and rather than pay up to license these patents, Google took the related functionality away. What I don’t get is what calculus on Google’s end made the company believe that this was the best solution to the situation.
Unfortunately, there’s no complete list of the features that Google has taken away as a result of these patent changes, but I know for a fact that we’ve lost more than the company publicly divulged back in January. Here’s what I know so far:
- Casting volume controls were removed and then added back in a way that presumably circumvented Sonos’s patents.
- Volume controls for grouped speakers have been lost, both in hardware (volume keys) and in software (apps, Assistant voice-based controls).
- Grouped speakers no longer work on devices running older Cast firmware.
- Product installation and updates may require a Device Utility app for “a small set of users.”
- Google Home app has lost the “cast my audio” button for speaker groups.
- Pixel phones in the US can no longer set up Chromecasts and possibly some other devices. Customers that only own a Pixel effectively can't move Chromecasts between Wi-Fi networks or set up a newly purchased/reset device at all.
Google has acknowledged some of these issues, while others have surfaced simply due to customer complaints. I've reached out to Google to see if the company has a complete list of lost or degraded features, but the company only directed me to the two times it pointed out many of these changes in its forums. So far as I can tell, these posts constitute all communication Google has made with its customers regarding these issues — I know I haven't received any direct emails regarding lost functionality, even though Google has my contact information and knows that I use features like grouped speakers. We've asked Google to confirm if it's contacted customers directly regarding the changes at all, but the company did not immediately respond.
I know that for some of our readers, these might seem like niche problems, but losing functionality you paid for with little to no direct notice isn’t reasonable in any circumstance. In one of the worst examples above, not being able to connect your Chromecast to Wi-Fi because you’re unfortunate enough to be using a Pixel phone, is pretty inexcusable.
This lawsuit has been brewing for two years, and the fact that Google wasn’t prepared for workarounds on these issues when possible, given all that time, doesn’t seem acceptable. And ignoring the loss of the features themselves, customer communication around the issues has been substandard. Again, in the case of the Chromecast setup issue noted above, consider the related error message you’ll see:
"A few extra steps" is a lie if you've got a Pixel. You're just screwed.
According to an attorney I spoke to who has handled state and federal consumer class-action lawsuits previously (and who preferred to remain anonymous), Google's actions could open the company to potential liability.
"I’m surprised that Google would put itself in the position where it’s merely a matter of money to pay the patent holder to avoid degrading its products in a way that deliberately causes its products not to perform as represented, sold, and warrantied."
The fact of the matter is that Google could agree to license Sonos's patents at any point in time, restoring the originally described functionality. And even if it refuses to do that, because of how these products work and the fact that they can be tied to a Google account, it's within the company's power to contact the majority of affected customers directly with options now that the performance of their purchased devices had been degraded. But it hasn't. Google would prefer to reduce and eliminate functionality by removing marketed features from its products instead.
Clearly, I'd rather see Google find a way to maintain functionality in the meantime as the rest of the lawsuit with Sonos is resolved, but I'm told by the attorney that Google's failure to license here might be part of its legal strategy. Not paying Sonos might be a matter of "cold-blooded calculus" that weighs the advantages of "putting the squeeze" on Sonos (by not funding Sonos's legal efforts against Google through licensing) more highly than the potential liability costs and reduction in brand loyalty resulting from problems with Google's products. But other recent snafus like the YouTube app on older Chromecasts also make it clear to me that Google doesn't really care if or when it breaks things for its users, whether that's the result of a lawsuit or not.
Google can't follow this specific solution, but I’m reminded of the fact that Google and Match, also embroiled in a lawsuit, came to an agreement that prevented the customer experience from being degraded during their ongoing dispute. Match will pay what it would normally owe Google directly into an escrow account while the beef is resolved (an "interpleader," as it's called in a civil suit), allowing Match’s various dating apps to stay on the Play Store in the meantime. The motivation behind that action is different, and the circumstances of the lawsuit and disagreement are also fundamentally different, but there's an important (if unintended) connection I see: Google and Match are keeping the customer experience the same while they work out their dispute. I'm certain that Google could negotiate some kind of licensing terms with Sonos to ensure customers don't lose functionality in the meantime.
I've reached out to both Google and Sonos for their take on the ongoing situation, as well as to determine if a licensing arrangement could be made pending the resolution of the conflict. Google merely pointed us to the two posts it's made to its product forums, and Sonos didn't have anything new to share, merely reiterating that the ITC has confirmed Google was violating an import ban (probably leading to the recent degradation in the Chromecast setup experience). The following quote regarding the ITC decision, from Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus, was also provided:
“The US Customs Service ruled publicly that Google has been violating the importation ban that the International Trade Commission imposed after finding that a host of Google’s products infringe five foundational Sonos home audio patents. US Customs Service confirmed that Google was flouting the importation ban and continuing to import infringing products in violation of that ban. This finding marks yet another example of Google continuing to misuse our intellectual property and acting in wholesale disregard of the law. We remain committed to defending our IP and will continue to do so, on behalf of our own technology, as well as the broader innovation landscape.”
I don't always think of it in these terms, but when it comes to product analysis, my job is basically to be a professional customer. When you do a product review, you're essentially describing precisely how and why something is good or bad in a way that impacts the people buying it. And right now, Google is making once-good products worse than they were, taking away features customers paid for and expected.
The reasoning behind why that is happening doesn't really matter — Google's responsible for it either way. The simplest solution in my mind is to stop fighting what courts have already determined is a legitimate patent infringement and give users back the features that they paid for. Google's customers aren't to blame, but they're the only ones that have to deal with the fallout as this dumb little quarrel drags on and Google tries to "get back at" Sonos while simultaneously ruining its products. And Sonos tried to negotiate a patent deal with Google as far back as 2016.
Stop throwing a fit because you lost and just cough up the dough to Sonos, Google.