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Facebook’s Rumored Smart Speaker Is A Great And Terrible Idea

The social networking giant is rumored to be working on an Echo-like speaker device. It makes sense, but it also makes us a little nervous.

Facebook’s Rumored Smart Speaker Is A Great And Terrible Idea
[Photo: Flickr user [like caramel!]]

Yesterday, DigiTimes reported that Facebook is working on an ambient voice device to compete with the likes of the Amazon Echo. This could be a great and/or terrible idea.

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We’ve seen smart speakers from an online mega-retailer (Amazon), a search and ad giant (Google), and a couple of consumer devices companies (Apple and Xiaomi). Microsoft, a productivity software company, and Samsung, another consumer devices company, will likely join in with their own ambient voice products.

But the possibility of a smart speaker from the world’s largest social networking company is especially intriguing. In the cases of Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, it was fairly clear how a smart speaker might complement their core businesses. It was also clear that the smart speaker is a major beachhead in the war of the tech platforms. But why would Facebook want to sell a smart speaker?

Facebook In The Kitchen?

Facebook’s device would be different than most of the other ambient voice devices, DigiTimes reports, in that it has a large 15-inch display (sourced from LG). The device’s large screen may make sense because social network posts are largely visual, with text, photos, and video.

Global Data analyst Avi Greengart stresses that the kitchen counter is an important piece of real estate for tech companies, and that the new Facebook device—if real—might be intended for that space.

“Think Facebook in the kitchen: tasty recipe videos, photos of your niece, upcoming events,” Greengart wrote in an email to Fast Company on Tuesday. “It’s not crazy to think some consumers would welcome it, especially if positioned as a digital picture frame/smart speaker.”

An important caveat here is that the device is just a rumor at this point, and DigiTimes has a mixed track record when it comes to reporting supply-chain rumors. Some never actually come to fruition. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment: “We don’t have anything to share at this time.”

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Greengart, meanwhile, has his doubts that mainstream consumers are so hooked on Facebook that they need a “constant social media ticker in the room.” And Facebook has badly misconstrued consumer desires in the past. Remember when it thought people wanted a “Facebook phone”? Well, it turns out they didn’t.

Connected Home Device?

So far, one of the main jobs of ambient voice devices like smart speakers is to act as a hub from which to control all kinds of lights, switches, locks, and other accessories in the home. People like saying, “Hey [assistant name], turn off the living room lights,” as if telling another person in the room.

And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has shown a special interest in the connected home. He built an AI-powered home automation system called Jarvis for his own home earlier this year. The system responds to natural language commands from the user to control lights, music, and room temperature. Zuck’s interest in the tech makes the possibility of a Facebook ambient home device sound more plausible.

And the home is, by nature, a very social place. Interactions among family members happen constantly. So do buying decisions. It seems reasonable that Facebook might want to extend its reach there.

Personal Data Vacuum

But, as Jacob Kastrenakes at the Verge points out, that’s exactly why a Facebook kitchen-counter device might be a bad idea. It could be a real threat to privacy, or at least a reason to feel uneasy. Facebook’s whole business depends on the collection of personal information for the targeting of ads. The new device may give Facebook a new and powerful means of seeing and hearing new forms of personal information and label it as “social.” Some of the ads might appear on the device itself. Others might appear on Facebook or other platforms.

The DigiTimes report says the Facebook product will be manufactured by Pegatron in China, and will be released in the first quarter of 2018. It also says the ambient device, which was designed by Facebook’s Building 8 department, will be housed in a magnesium-aluminum alloy chassis.

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For now, we’ll just have to wait and see, but no doubt there’s a big opportunity here for Facebook: The research firm Strategy Analytics says smart speaker sales will reach $5.5 billion in 2022.