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Facebook is rumoured to be building a smart speaker, but who’s it really for?

Facebook – following in the footsteps of Amazon, Google and Apple – is rumoured to be building its own smart home device with a built in touchscreen and speaker.

Rumours first started circulating after DigiTimes reported that sources from the “upstream supply chain” had claimed that Chinese iPhone manufacturer Pegatron had started work on the device. A small pilot run of the Facebook-developed hardware has, apparently, already taken place and used an LG in-cell touchscreen with a magnesium-alloy casing.

Little else is known about Facebook’s connected home hub, but chances are it’s intended to bring your Facebook friends into the heart of your home, displaying a flipbook of photos and videos, and enabling the easy contact of friends via voice recognition. Essentially, it’s about taking Facebook out of your pocket and placing it on your kitchen counter. Facebook wants you to make sure you’re always paying attention to it, and push notifications alone don’t cut it any more.

The Amazon Echo Show

As concrete details are scant, it’s unclear whether it will come packaged with an AI voice assistant to help you create posts and events, or search through your Facebook feed. Back in September, Facebook’s head of Messenger David Marcus told TechCrunch the company wasn’t wasn’t working on voice technology – but in 2015 it bought voice-command developer Wit.ai, indicating it could well be fiddling with it in the background. If Facebook’s speaker did launch without such a feature, it would almost certainly be dead on arrival.

The challenges facing Facebook

The social media behemoth doesn’t currently have a hand in the connected home environment like its technological peers. Without developing such a device, Facebook would look like it’s not keeping up with the companies it perceives itself as going head to head with. However, up against devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, I can’t really see much need for Apple’s HomePod, let alone a Facebook-powered device. Not to mention that Amazon, Google and Apple all have their own music and video streaming services to drive subscriptions – Facebook does not.

Facebook also doesn’t have a strong past in the hardware game. Back in 2013, it tried to release Facebook Home on a dedicated HTC handset. By the end of its experiment, phones were practically being given away for free due to a total lack of interest. Even the Facebook Home launcher on Android failed to gain traction – those REALLY ANNOYING floating Messenger Chat Heads are its only legacy.

By including a screen in its rumoured device, Facebook could be hoping to stand apart from the crowd, but Amazon is already working on the Echo Show – an Echo speaker with a built-in touchscreen. A screen also has the downside of opening up your private Facebook feed to others. Most people would prefer to browse their Facebook feeds via their phones, rather than on a central home hub. It keeps things private and personal, sharing it with others only when you feel comfortable to do so. Imagine having everything visible on a panel displayed in the heart of your home; I can’t see younger family members or those who share a home with others (hello, almost anyone living in a city) loving such a prospect.

Google’s screenless Google Home smart speaker and home hub

Privacy is also a big issue. People may be worried about what Google knows about them, but as it offers up a plethora of services in exchange, most give them a free pass. Amazon is similar, but Jeff Bezos is only really interested in ecommerce data, and Apple has continually said it has zero interest in your digital footprint (although I don’t quite believe them).

Facebook, on the other hand, loves your data. It loves to push relevant content to you, it loves to sell you things and use your personal information to let advertisers put together personality maps about their target demographics. People already feel fearful of the amount of information Facebook knows about their personal lives, so why would they opt to bring an always-on, Facebook-connected microphone into their homes?

What’s more, if Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did run for US presidency in 2020, would people feel comfortable owning a Facebook device like the one rumoured to be in development?

Facebook’s connected trump card

It’s not all doom and gloom for a Facebook-made smart device, since it has a potential trump card over everything else on the market – parity.

Apple’s Siri-enabled HomePod

Due to the siloing of services Thanks to the petty siloing of services, Google Home can’t make use of Amazon’s Prime Video nor Music services. Conversely, Amazon Echo has no Google Cast nor Google Music, Play, or Video. Neither platform has a decent messaging app, and it’s unlikely Amazon Echo Show will support Facebook integration for the few curious enough to try it.

But Facebook could easily bring together a decent messaging network with solid voice and video calling in your home. It also has the potential to offer both Google Cast and support for the Amazon Fire TV Stick – perhaps even Apple’s AirPlay. It sits in a middle ground where, despite perceiving itself as a rival company, Google, Amazon and Apple aren’t particularly phased by it occupying the same space.

Facebook also has another ace up its sleeve, too: the top-secret development lab where this smart speaker is rumoured to be being developed is actually up to some pretty cool things.

Known as Building 8, this development arm of Facebook has already worked on tech to let people type with their thoughts or “hear” through their skin. It’s also the team responsible for developing Facebook’s rumoured modular phone. Building 8 seems to be a place filled with interesting ideas, so it’s possible that this rumoured smart speaker is far more than it seems.

You only need to look to the advancements Facebook has made in the virtual-reality space since buying Oculus. If this Facebook home hub could become a portal to wireless VR play though the in-development, untethered “Santa Cruz” prototype Rift headset, this could be an exciting prospect after all.

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