What Amazon got right about smart speakers that Facebook won’t : Just hours after Amazon surprised us with more new Alexa-enabled gadgets than we can count, word broke that Facebook’s voice-activated smart speaker (reportedly called “Portal”) is apparently back on — and launching as soon as next week.
Suddenly, a market that’s been dominated by Amazon and Google is starting to look more interesting … right? Well, not exactly.
I’m not trying to pick on Facebook but, of everything we’ve heard about the yet-to-be-revealed Portal speaker, nothing suggests that it can overcome what will likely be its biggest hurdle: that nobody trusts Facebook anymore. If you think an Alexa-enabled microwave sounds creepy, how do you think people will react to a Facebook-branded smart speaker with an AI-infused camera?
I’m not saying that one company has better or worse intentions than the other. There’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical of both. But Amazon has some considerable advantages that Facebook doesn’t. By being first to the market with the original Amazon Echo more than three years ago, the company not only ensured its brand became synonymous with digital assistants, it also got us comfortable with the idea of having an always-listening speaker in our homes to begin with. That the company is now capitalizing on that trust to put Alexa in and on just about every surface it can is not surprising. It’s also a strategy that’s been incredibly successful.
Compare that with Facebook, which is not only coming in very late, but which has very little goodwill at this particular moment.
For starters, there’s the whole Cambridge Analytica debacle, which the company is only now (sort of, kind of) beginning to recover from. Even so, trust in the company has been eroding rapidly, regardless of how many apology ads the social network runs. The fact that it delayed the Portal launch by a few months — what some employees are dismissively calling a “brand tax,” according to Cheddar — won’t change that.
Furthermore the few details that have leaked out about Portal don’t sound like they’ll do much to change that perception, either. Early reports indicate that the Echo Show-like speaker will have built-in face-tracking abilities so it can recognize and “follow” people around a room. (The goal is to enable better video chatting, which feels a lot like a solution searching for a problem).
Oh yeah, it’s also going to cost between $300 and $400, according to Cheddar. That’s at least $70 more than the new $230 Echo Show and at least $100 more than the Google Assistant-equipped Lenovo Smart Display.
Does that sound like something that will have the same mass market appeal of Amazon’s Echo or even the Google Home? No, definitely not.
But even if it was priced competitively, the company has already lost many of its users’ trust. And a face-tracking smart speaker isn’t going to change that.