Google’s Sonos lawsuit dodge might let other phone makers do what Pixel cannot

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You might think a Google phone would be the best choice to control your Google-branded speakers, but that’s not necessarily true: Google’s actions have potentially opened the door for other manufacturers to do what the Pixel legally cannot, writes Android sleuth Mishaal Rahman at Esper.

Last week, we wrote how “Your Google home speakers are about to get slightly worse because Sonos sued and won.” If you’re using a Google Pixel, that’s true — among other things, you won’t be able to control the volume of a multi-zone Google Cast speaker group. That’s because the US International Trade Commission ruled that Google copied Sonos’ technology and threatened to block imports unless Google implemented five specific software tweaks. One of the Sonos patents specifically dealt with controlling volume of a multi-zone speaker group.

But when Rahman dug into the Android 12 code, he found that the way Google disabled remote speaker group volume control is incredibly basic: Google simply set a single value from “true” to “false” on its own Pixel phones. Rahman writes:

the second patch seems tailored to allow Google to ship Pixel phones without the ability to control the volume of remote speaker group sessions. But it also leaves an easy way for OEMs to ship their own devices with the feature enabled. All an OEM would have to do is build AOSP with GMS and leave the default value (‘true’) for the config_volumeAdjustmentForRemoteGroupSessions flag in place.

It sounds like if Samsung or Xiaomi (currently the world’s top two Android manufacturers) want their phones to control the volume of an entire speaker group (something a Google Pixel can no longer do as of the latest update), they don’t have to lift any additional fingers. They just have to avoid intentionally turning it off. And Rahman says that — at least in beta — the upcoming Android 12L works this way as well.

(For the uninitiated, “build AOSP with GMS” simply means to take the basic version of Android that Google offers free to manufacturers, with the Google services that the company generally licenses with it, which is what most Android phone makers do anyhow before they skin Android with additions of their own.)

None of this means that any phone maker will necessarily take Google up on this possibility. For all I know — I am not a lawyer — Sonos could just turn around and sue them, too, using its victory against Google as precedent. But it’s all very intriguing to think about.

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