Now it’s “smart speaker wars” as Google and Sonos fall out over patents

via flickr © (CC BY 2.0)

via flickr © (CC BY 2.0)

  • Sonos claims Google infringed five of its patents
  • Google has just come back with the claim that Sonos has infringed five of its patents
  • Patents being what they are, both companies are probably right

Google’s ‘Don’t be Evil’ slogan may have come back to bite it as it hunkers down for a patent slanging match with its technology partner gone sour, Sonos.

Google has just escalated an already simmering dispute by filing a lawsuit accusing the American audio company of infringing five of Google’s patents. Google says that Sonos was caught using “substantial volumes” of its patented technology without permission on its controller apps and the Sonos Radio service.

Google’s move appears to have come as a carefully calculated (and no doubt carefully researched)  tit-for-tat in response to a lawsuit launched by Sonos earlier this year. In  that one Sonos accused Google of infringing five of its own patents, filing complaints in a federal court in Los Angeles and before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in Washington. 

Both sides have now gone full macho with Google accusing Sonos of false claims over the two companies’ collaborations in the hot smart speaker market, and Sonos’ Chief Executive, Patrick Spence signalling  “bring it on” - saying he looks forward to winning both cases.

Google, anxious perhaps to preserve its historical image as patent victim rather than patent infringer, has pointed out that it rarely sues over patents but (draws line in sand)  “must assert its intellectual property rights here.”

That’s presumably because the smart speaker market is a big deal, being one of the only growing bits in the gadget domain, something it’s been doing since at least early 2019.

In February this year Strategy Analytics said the smart speaker market had reached a new high by recording sales of 146.9 million units, an increase of 70 per cent over 2018. 

By early this year (pre-pandemic) Amazon remained the leading brand with a share of 26 per cent,  down from 35 per cent in 2018 while Google retained second place with a 20 per cent share, also down from 26 per cent the previous year. Chinese vendors Baidu, Alibaba and Xiaomi all increased their shares, while Apple remained in sixth place with 5 per cent. 

Strategy Analytics expects 2020 to be another record year for smart speaker sales, in spite of the near-term impact of disruption to supply and demand caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19). It might have added that prolonged lockdown and staying at home, with more of the same potentially on the way in some markets, might have already created another boost.

So the rhetoric is being cranked up. “Google has chosen to use their size and breadth to try and find areas in which they can retaliate,” and has turned to strong-arm tactics the robber barons of old would have applauded,” Spence said in a statement. Sonos also accuses Google of selling infringing products at cheaper prices, to fuel its strategy of extracting more user data to expand its advertising and search services.

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