Facebook reportedly getting into the smart speaker game

All the other US tech giants have one, so it looks like Facebook is feeling left out and will launch some smart speakers later this year.

The news has been leaked by Digitimes, a Taiwan-based tech news site that specialises in tapping sources in the supply-chain channel to get clues about upcoming products. It reckons Facebook will launch two smart speakers with screens in the middle of this year, with the product strategy of making easier to interact with your Facebook friends, especially via video chat.

As you might expect once of them is said to be the basic model and the other the deluxe version, with all the bells and whistles. The basic one is codenamed Fiona and the better one is codenamed Aloha. Apparently Aloha will be marketed as Portal and will have clever gizmos like facial recognition, some extra social networking functions and some music licensing contracts.

If this report is accurate then it would seem to represent the latest manifestation of Facebook’s slow-motion panic attack in response to multiple competitive and existential threats. Not only is there growing evidence that Facebook users are using the service less than they used to, but there are growing concerns for it to take responsibility for all content published on Facebook, including acting as a censor.

Facebook resisted trying to get into the smartphone game, having done a good enough job with its app to render such futile gestures unnecessary. But it’s presumably worried that people will increasingly interact with the internet via smart speakers such as those offered by Amazon and, more recently, Apple.

Furthermore voice UI doesn’t really lend itself to Facebook, where the user experience is all about scrolling through posts and comments, and even less so to image-focused Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. So it’s easy to see why Facebook wants to get people using screens (other than TVs, tablets, smartphones, etc) in the living room.

But it’s hard to see how Facebook can possibly make a success of this. It’s very late to the market, has no track record in devices, and seems to be swimming against the current in trying to introduce a screen to devices defined by the voice UI. Also, because of the screen, these devices are likely to be relatively expensive, so what reason would anyone have to buy one of these instead of the alternatives?

Another report reveals Apple has had to drop its pants on margin just to get its smart speaker to market at a remotely competitive price point. And the reason the HomePod is so expensive is that Apple went all in on premium audio, but initial reviews indicate there is little to distinguish it from cheaper alternatives.

We would be happy to be proved wrong but this initiative, if it’s real, smacks of product development lead by sales and marketing rather than research and development. Products launched to defend a commercial position rather than as a genuine attempt to offer something useful usually fail, just ask Amazon, which basically wrote off its entire Fire Phone effort. Facebook is going to have to do something truly innovative to pull this off.

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