Facebook has reportedly suspended its plans to debut a new smart speaker at its annual F8 developer conference in May. The decision comes amidst ongoing scrutiny and backlash from the alleged misuse of its users’ personal data by analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.
The postponement, first reported by Bloomberg, comes at a time when user trust in Facebook is comparatively low next to trust in some of its Big Tech counterparts like Google and Amazon. Have a look at this poll data from Reuters:
Given that the public, as well as lawmakers, is already questioning the extent of how personal data is shared and used by Facebook, it almost seems like an obvious decision to hold off on plans to unveil smart home devices.
Such devices are said to always be “listening” to its users — take, for example, the fact that they must be prompted by verbal cues (e.g., “Alexa” or “okay, Google”), indicating that they must always be monitoring for audible cues. The Amazon Echo, for instance, recently made headlines for misinterpreting these cues with creepy, unprompted laughing.
Facebook’s plans to build these devices was also first reported by Bloomberg last August, when the social media company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced an intent to launch hardware products for video chat from its Building 8 program, like a large screen and a smart camera. A major purpose of these products, it was said, was to “help farflung people feel like they’re in the same room.”
Those plans also included the smart home speaker in question, which would be equipped with Facebook’s own version of a voice assistant.
The branding around that assistant would be clear, though its Messenger platform previously used something called M: an AI assistant that picked up on verbiage cues from your conversations to figure out what you might need, like ordering food or sending someone a sticker related to such sentiments as “good morning.” Facebook discontinued M earlier this year.
According to the Bloomberg report, Facebook does still plan to launch products later this year. Originally, the new hardware was expected to ship in the fall, but now the target launch date is unclear.
Facebook does hold an annual event in the fall: Oculus Connect. However, that gathering is traditionally focused almost wholly on virtual reality.
It raises questions about what will be discussed at this year’s F8 conference, where many expect Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives to speak to the role of user privacy in the company’s future plans.
Facebook is also not the only one with plans to release new voice assistant technology this year. Rumors have been circulating about Spotify’s development of a smart speaker, and Samsung is also said to be releasing such a device this year powered by its own voice assistant, Bixby.
— Hunter Owens (@owens)
March 14, 2018
In the weeks leading up to F8, scheduled to take place May 1-2, I’ll be keeping an eye on this story. Questions? Feel free to weigh in on Twitter.