Now That Apple Has HomePod, When Will Facebook Find Its Voice?

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Apple has joined Amazon and Google in the battle for the home with its own voice-activiated assistant. Now Facebook has to decide how to proceed, writes David Berkowitz.
Apple has joined Amazon and Google in the battle for the home with its own voice-activiated assistant. Now Facebook has to decide how to proceed, writes David Berkowitz. Credit: Apple

Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and now Apple have made their voice-activated hardware approaches clear. But one proverbial elephant isn't in the literal living room yet: Facebook. Does that mean Facebook will be next?

Amazon was the first to define this market, with its Echo devices using its Alexa operating system. Google came next with Home, powered by 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, which combined voice recognition with facial recognition. This year, Microsoft licensed its voice software, Cortana, to power a Harmon Kardon device called the Invoke. And just this month, at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced it would release its HomePod, which it refers to as "a powerful speaker."

That accounts for four out of five of the U.S.-based technology leaders. Analyst and investor Lou Kerner, who refers to Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon collectively as "FAMGA," notes they have a combined market capitalization north of $3 trillion. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo calls them the "Frightful Five." If four are already betting on voice-activated hardware designed for the home, could the fifth be far behind?

Here are four scenarios for what Facebook might do:

Scenario 1: It bucks the herd and decides not to enter. After all, Facebook is not a hardware company, and 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, meanwhile, doesn't want to sit on the fence during another operating system battle, especially after faring so poorly with smartphones. Apple should have invented this category, but it is now catching up as the fourth entrant with a me-too product. Yes, Facebook may miss out on some of the data generated from home devices, but the company doesn't have the same need to be in this category as the others do.

Scenario 2: It waits 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: It integrates its software with other 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 this: "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 uses the voice-activated home hardware it already has. Facebook's virtual reality headset, Oculus, added voice controls in March. The blog post from Oculus made 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 for virtual reality. While Facebook attempts that, Apple will release a $350 speaker and Amazon will continue to corner the market this holiday season.

My bet is that if these speakers (with or without screens attached) become social, Facebook will be there, and give its 2 billion users a reason to buy its product. Facebook will, in turn, gain more opportunities to adapt its software for the other four operating systems.

But 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.

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