Just when you thought the smart speaker industry couldn't get any more overstuffed, word is that Facebook will be entering the world of smart speakers. Because that makes perfect sense.
According to a report from Digitimes, Facebook has two premium-tier smart speakers on the way. Codenamed Aloha and Fiona, the report claims that both devices will launch by July with 15-inch LG-made touchscreen displays built in. That's more than double the size of Amazon's Echo Show, for anyone keeping score. Both devices supposedly have voice commands, but are designed with an emphasis on video calls and other unspecified "social media functions". That makes then sound like devices dedicated to Facebook, which is just what people need.
Now that might not be too bad if the device was cheap, but that doesn't seem to be the case. If you thought the Apple HomePod was expensive you're in for a shock, because Aloha is widely assumed to be the codename for the Facebook Portal - a $499 (£355) device that was first rumoured at CES last month. Portal is supposed to be an upgraded version of whatever Fiona turns out to be, complete with a wide-angle lens, video calling, and facial recognition that logs people directly into their Facebook accounts.
Rumours are a bit contradictory when it comes to the smart aspect. Back when rumours started appearing back in August (via Bloomberg) it was reported that a Facebook smart speaker would come with its own virtual assistant, similar to Siri, Alexa, or Google. But as of last month TechRadar claims that those plans have been scrapped - even though the devices supposedly had voice commands. That makes them less like smart speakers, and more like cut-down overpriced tablets.
As to why anyone would want to buy one of these, especially at that rumoured price, reports claim that even Mark Zuckerberg isn't sure. But being as rich as he is, he doesn't seem to care about using the device to generate profit. Instead sources claim he want its to "change user behavior and encourage phone-like usage among owners." Presumably, if people buy a dedicated Facebook machine, it also turns each device into a brand new way to collect information and serve up ads. Facebook does seem to like doing that, after all.
It's not impossible that these devices would also serve as smart home hubs, after all some companies have built smart home controls into Facebook Messenger. My concern is whether or not Facebook actually needs to be doing this. The smart speaker market is already feeling pretty saturated, and it will face stiff competition from companies that have a lot more experience producing quality hardware. Would it not be more sensible to work wit those companies to introduce apps for the various services it owns? The Echo Show only calls other Echo devices right now, but what if it could be used to call WhatsApp accounts instead?
But then again, if the $499 price tag is anything to go by, this clearly isn't designed to be an impulse purchase - assuming the reports are all accurate. But then again why anyone would buy a device that's more expensive than some smart phones, just to use what Facebook tells you you can use, is beyond me. Amazon claims to have sold "millions" of Echo Dots during the discount-heavy run up to Christmas, and was the best-selling product of the time period. There were so many discounts that reports claim both Amazon and Google might have lost money on their respective mini assistants.
Devices with screens, especially 15-inch screens, are never going to be that absurdly cheap, but it's pretty clear people will buy something they could easily live without if the price is right. If Facebook wants to win, then maybe it should rethink its pricing strategy. Quality only goes so far. [Digitimes via TechRadar]