A more polished, edited version of this appeared in Ad Age. You’re stuck with the original ‘director’s cut’ here.
When Will Facebook Find Its Voice?
Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and now Apple made their voice-activated hardware approaches clear. There’s one proverbial elephant that isn’t in the literal living room right now though: Facebook. Does that mean Facebook will be next?
At its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this month, Apple announced it would release its HomePod, which it refers to as “a powerful speaker.” Amazon was the first to define this market, with its Echo devices using its Alexa operating system. Google came next with Home, powered by the Google Assistant. Microsoft first offered voice controls of a home electronics device years ago when it released the Kinect in 2010 for the Xbox 360; it combined voice recognition with facial recognition. This year, Microsoft licensed its voice software, Cortana, to power a Harmon Kardon device called the Invoke.
That leaves four out of five of the US-based technology leaders accounted for. Analyst and investor Lou Kerner refers to Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon collectively as “FAMGA”; they have a combined market capitalization north of $3 trillion. If four out of five are betting on voice-activated hardware designed for the home, then could the fifth be far behind? Here are four scenarios for what Facebook might do:
Scenario 1: It bucks the herd. Despite acquiring Oculus, Facebook is not a hardware company. Facebook also has less to gain. Amazon can promote its products and charge for sponsored product recommendations. Google can apply its own direct response ads for voice-triggered search queries, and Home aligns well with Nest and Dropcam. Microsoft doesn’t want to sit on the fences during another operating system battle, especially after faring so poorly with smartphones. Apple should have invented this category rather than coming in fourth with a me-too product – trailing Harman Kardon no less (all to Harmon Kardon’s credit). Facebook may miss out on some of the data generated from home devices, but Facebook doesn’t have the same need to be in this category as the others do.
Scenario 2: It’s waiting to see how social these devices are. Apple touts the quality of its speaker, but Amazon’s Echo Look will be the first in the category to offer the equivalent of FaceTime video chat. Will this be the killer app that fuels the next wave of the category? It’s a tough bet to make, as smartphones already work well for video chat, and using a screen to chat is often more of a hassle (cue Jane Jetson with her “Morning Mask”). If these voice-activated speakers become the new home phone, Facebook will want to be in the mix, with the Messenger brand leading the way. This is also why Microsoft wants to ensure it has a path for Skype to succeed here.
Scenario 3: Facebook will integrate its software with others’ devices rather than release its own. Remember the Facebook Phone? Nearly a decade ago, there was constant speculation that Facebook would release its own smartphone. I never understood how this would serve Facebook’s goals. In September 2010, I wrote in a column, “We already have a Facebook phone. It’s called the phone.” Facebook remains ubiquitous on everyone else’s devices. Facebook’s official response to the speculation was, “Our view is that almost all experiences would be better if they were social, so integrating deeply into existing platforms and operating systems is a good way to enable this.” In that sense, HomePod, Echo, Home, and Invoke will all be Facebook devices sooner or later.
Scenario 4: It already has voice-activated home hardware. Facebook’s virtual reality headset, Oculus, added voice controls in March. The blog post from Oculus makes it seem like a frivolous addition: “To make finding great videos even easier, we’ve added voice search to Rooms. Just select ‘Search’ in the TV area and tap the mic button, then speak to search for any Facebook content you want to watch with friends, from cartoons to cat videos.” Instead of simulating surround sound, Oculus simulates surround vision, and speech recognition comes with it. As was the case with Kinect and now Xbox One, with Oculus, voice control is a feature rather than a product.
In acquiring Oculus, Facebook is attempting to create an entire market. It can strive to craft a more utopian version of OASIS from the novel Ready, Player One. While Facebook attempts that, Apple is releasing a $350 speaker, and Amazon’s prospects for continuing to corner the market this holiday season never looked better. If these speakers (with or without screens attached) become social, Facebook will be there. Giving Facebook’s 2 billion users a reason to consider buying the product can’t hurt. Facebook will in turn gain more opportunities to adapt its software for the other four operating systems. For now, the smart speaker market will have to settle for being a four-way race. Instead of FAMGA, it’s AMGA – or, MAGA, if that acronym isn’t taken.