Facebook is the most dominant social media company in the world, with tentacles that include WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger. Any time it sees an opportunity for new social experiences (hello, VR and Oculus) it springs into action. Pair that aggressiveness with its social reach and you've got the recipe to make the smart home social - and own it.
Facebook's thread of services don't really integrate all too well. Sure, you can easily post Instagram photos on Facebook, but that's about it. What Facebook needs is something that turns those threads into a web. And it may soon have some. Bloomberg has reported the company is working on both a laptop-sized 15-inch video smart speaker - confirming an earlier DigiTimes report - and an audio-only smart speaker. If that sounds familiar to you, it's probably because they sound eerily familiar to Amazon's Echo Show and Echo.
While the smaller audio-only speaker is said to compete with the likes of Echo, Google Home and - soon - Apple HomePod, the larger device is apparently markedly different. The large screen, and its included "smart camera technology" have the goal of making people in different parts of the room feel like they're in the same space - but we'll get back to that later.
Allegedly developed by Facebook's Building 8 lab, which was founded to create hardware that locks people into Facebook's ecosystem, the device reportedly has a wide-angle camera, microphones and speakers. It's said to be powered by AI, though Facebook apparently isn't sure whether to power the device with Android or its own custom operating system. The camera could be able to scan for people in the room and lock onto them, which could enable it to do things like zoom into a child's painting while speaking to a parent away from home.
Facebook has been quick and aggressive in adapting its social media product to new technology paradigms, like how it quickly refocused its products from the web to smartphones. Oculus - and the kooky Facebook Spaces - are another move toward that. Facebook likely sees the home as the next frontier. Amazon, for instance, clearly sees social as a key part of the smart home future. One of the features Amazon is pushing the most for its Echo Show is video calling and the ability to drop in to someone's living room. Even if you don't have the added screen, Echo devices can now call one another, or even a smartphone that has the Alexa app.
People also intrinsically know that Amazon is trying to sell you something. It's an e-commerce giant, and everything Amazon does is an attempt to get you to buy something - anything - on Amazon. Similarly, there's Google, which people tend to see as an internet overlord collecting and selling information. Facebook is different. It's a company that has gotten billions of people to trust it with personal data because it creates a space where you can be social virtually with your closest family and friends.
The only other company looking at the smart home that comes close in trust is Apple. Regardless, if people can trust Mark Zuckerberg and company with pictures of babies and important personal news, then they can trust them with a device in their home. Amazon isn't exactly noted for its social prowess, though. You can video and audio call now via Echo devices and the Alexa app, the features and devices are new, which means there probably aren't too many users yet. Amazon's most popular social network is GoodReads, which boasts around 55 million users. Facebook, on the other hand, has 2 billion users. And that's before you count Instagram's 700 million users, WhatsApp's 1.2 billion users and Messenger's 1.2 billion users.
Everything Amazon does is an attempt to get you to buy something - anything - on Amazon
We already know that the smart speaker is the gateway to the smart home. Smart speakers offer a small, delicious taste of being able to say something and see your house react. Once you hook people with a feature - whether that be Google's presence, Apple's music chops or Amazon's price points - they start to experiment and see what the smart world has in store for them. For Facebook, the grease on the wheels is social. So while video chat is one of the big selling points for the Echo Show, Amazon is kneecapped by its user base and people not necessarily trusting Amazon as a lynchpin in their social lives. Facebook has neither of those problems. It has the user base and user trust to do social hardware right. And it knows it.
At Facebook's F8 developer conference this year, Building 8 head Regina Dugan spoke about how the company wanted to create new consumer products that are social first, but she also talked about how people are locked into little virtual worlds on smartphones. It's not difficult to read between the tea leaves and see that they see the potential for a device that bridges the gap between the real and virtual worlds.
Earlier this year, Facebook's head of Messenger David Marcus talked about how Facebook's goal with Messenger in 2017 was to recreate living room interactions virtually. That means sharing photos, video calling, audio calling, games and weird things (hi, stickers). Facebook's new video smart speaker could bridge that real and virtual gap, taking the virtual living room and blowing it up to a larger scale, fusing it with your real living room. No wonder Facebook's alleged goal for this new video smart speaker is to make people feel like they're in the same space.
Facebook has also been making advances toward businesses, loading them onto Messenger so that regular old folks like you and me could easily contact them for customer service and purchases and the like. Facebook could easily translate those features for a smart home device, all of a sudden letting you order things directly from businesses straight via your voice.We don't know exactly what Facebook features could make their way into a smart home device that's the size of a laptop, but it's not totally difficult to see what's possible.
Facebook is a treasure trove of photos and video from regular user and businesses alike. Not to mention Instagram, which is absolutely loaded with visual content, from regular photos and videos to Stories. Plus, Facebook is looking to heavily invest in original content like Amazon. It's also got two massive messaging platforms in WhatsApp and Messenger that could be used to integrate video and audio chat.
Oh, right. Voice. Facebook works on AI. It's got an army of bots its building, one of which started up its own language before Facebook shut it down (don't worry, this isn't a Skynet thing). What it doesn't really have is a voice-based AI, like Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri. However, back in 2015 Facebook acquired Wit.ai, a company that created APIs that let developers build voice-based interfaces with a couple lines of code.
In fact, Wit demonstrated its API's potential in smart home environments in a video, allowing you to do all kinds of things you expect from a smart home assistant. Want to set your thermostat? Go ahead. Change the channel on your TV? Do it, baby. Watch your friend's video on Facebook before buying something via Messenger? Hells. Yeah. Don't forget that Mark Zuckerberg built Jarvis, an AI to control his own home, in his spare time last year.
Facebook has all the tools it needs. Not only does it have the user base and reach to make a video calling product interesting, the device itself has the potential to tie all of Facebook's threads together. Great hardware needs a plethora of great services, and Facebook can provide that. You add in Facebook's trove of visual content, its user trust, its budding bot army of businesses and its acquisitions in voice-based AI and you have the best positioned company to make the smart home social, and own it.