How the Google Home Hub marks the start of the privacy wars

And why Google’s turning to the screen

Google Home Hub and the privacy wars
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Earlier this week Google gathered the press in New York to launch its Pixel smartphones and the new Home Hub. It was an exercise in both terrible and perfect timing.

Terrible because it came hours after a story revealing Google hadn't disclose a data breach that exposed data of hundreds of thousands of its users. Excellent because just hours before, Facebook, a company that’s spent most of this year giving users reasons not to trust it, announced a smart speaker that would place a camera in people's homes.

Google's message was different: We're not putting a camera on this thing at all.

Read this: What happens when virtual assistants go down

Clever spin. Counter-marketing. Call it what you will, but there’s no denying that this gives Google an upper hand in a year where user data has become a hot-button issue, and every other smart speaker display, including the Amazon Echo Show and Google’s third-party Smart Displays, has a camera.

There are a tonne of people not comfortable with a camera, especially in places like their bedroom

“There are a tonne of people not comfortable with a camera, especially in places like their bedroom, so we wanted to make a device people could use across the home,” Diya Jolly, Google‘s VP of product management, told me. “There was no device out there without a camera. We felt we needed to have more value than just video conferencing if we wanted to provide a camera.”

Smart home companies are putting cameras all over our homes - inside and out - but with growing unease about how tech companies are handling our personal information, there’s market opportunity in acknowledging those fears.

However, Jolly says that the decision to not put a camera in our homes wasn't a reaction to any recent events. "It just so happened that the environment came here," she said, "but our decision was made 18 months ago." She says that Google considered putting on a shutter that would hide the camera, like Facebook has done with Portal, but that the company believes it wouldn’t have sent the same message. “For people who are really concerned, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

How the Google Home Hub marks the start of the privacy wars
Facebook's new smart speaker, Portal, built for video calls

But this is all a learning experience for Google. In fact, the Home Hub feels like the birth of a whole new platform. While partners including Lenovo and JBL have pushed out Smart Display speakers running on Google’s Android Things software on Qualcomm chips, the Home Hub instead runs a version of Cast and a Amlogic chip (as revealed to Ars Technica). That's perhaps a strange decision for Google to make, but it's seemingly allowed Google to create a tighter experience, while eschewing Qualcomm could be a way to keep the cost down.

After all, Jolly said that while Google calls it the Hub, the company expects many users to have multiple Home Hubs around the house. And at $149 it's strategically priced, undercutting the Echo Show and Facebook Portal.

It does feel like the start of another experiment for Google, which, like every other company, is working out this space. "Everybody's trying to innovate in this space," said Jolly. "Everyone's trying to figure out what to do here." And despite no news about Google's screen-less smart speakers, Jolly assured me there is "absolutely" still life in the regular Google Home speaker, although wouldn't say when a refresh might happen.

Everyone's trying to figure out what to do here

She was more forthcoming about the future for Nest within Google. If you recall, the company was folded into Google's home devices division earlier this year, and at its press conference this week Google announced that Nest products would be more tightly integrated with the Home Hub - something it calls "thoughtful home" - one of the first results from the consolidation. "In terms of future roadmap I think you’ll see more and more integrations come along, whether it’s tighter integration with thermostats or, whether it’s deeper integrations wit the hub with cameras and things like that," said Jolly. "We’ve started working on this fairly recently, so we’re still working through it and seeing what the integrations points will be.

But for all the things Home Hub does have, we come back to what it lacks: the camera. It's a decision that grabbed a lot of attention from the press, and as companies compete to connect our homes, privacy - and the features these devices don't have - could win people over.

“I do think people are concerned about privacy, I think they’re right to be concerned about privacy," said Jolly. "I’m concerned about privacy in my own home. I think It’s incumbent on us as Google to make sure we provide the controls for that privacy, and that we respect your choices at home.”

TAGGED    google home

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