Why Facebook Wants to Sell Smart Displays? Attention and Agency.

This past week brought new rumors about Facebook’s plans for a smart display product and assistant to compete with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Amazon and Google both started with smart speakers with voice-only engagement and then worked to add display capabilities to their voice-first device portfolio and ecosystem. Facebook plans to skip the smart speaker step entirely and go straight for the smart display which integrates voice interactivity with a display screen offering a multimodal experience. Why is Facebook doing this when it has no history with hardware and could easily just partner with the leading platforms? Well, it’s complicated.

Voice Assistants Control Attention in a Way Mobile Does Not

You may recall that Facebook at one point considered releasing a smartphone but thought better of it and went on to become the most popular mobile app on both iOS and Android mobile platforms. That option is certainly available to Facebook today. If the company were to develop a compelling Facebook Alexa skill or Google Assistant app, it would almost certainly become an immediate hit on both platforms. With 1.4 billion monthly active users, Facebook doesn’t need to convert many to take a big lead in users and user activity while the hard work of selling new devices remains someone else’s responsibility.

So, why not just implement the same strategy for voice as for mobile? That may still happen, but it is important to note that voice assistants are different than mobile. Voice assistants introduce an intermediary between the user and content that is not present in mobile. A mobile user simply selects the app they want to activate. A smart speaker or smart display user must ask the voice assistant for access. That means the voice assistant can steer users to other content or promote other services in the process. In fact, the voice assistant controls attention for every initial interaction and attention is the currency on which Facebook has built its business.

Amazon’s Echo Show is a smart display that delivers content to a screen all day long. Amazon controls what content is displayed. Facebook wants that content to be the user’s personal feed from Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger. If you control the device, you control the passive content delivery. You also maintain the option to deliver notifications which can stimulate engagement, steer users to preferred activities or promote other media and services. This also explains why the company is skipping the smart speaker entirely. All of Facebook’s content is visual. The display of information aligns best with Facebook’s image and video strategy and highlights its most compelling content.

Voice Assistants Will Increasingly Have Agency

When you grant someone or something agency, it is able to do things on your behalf. A limited form of this is narrowing your choice. A voice assistant might suggest one or two alternatives in response to a user query while discarding numerous others. You are not aware of the alternatives but trust that the suggested alternatives are either best or are at least acceptable.

The stronger form of agency is a voice assistant that makes choices on your behalf. In this scenario you ask the voice assistant to purchase a household item. You trust your voice assistant to make a good choice that considers price, convenience and availability. It may not be the least expensive or the highest quality or it might be both. You don’t know. You delegated that decision to the voice assistant. As long as you are pleased with the results, the choices you never knew about are irrelevant.

This scenario may be important to Facebook if it wants to move into commerce. However, something that is relevant to Facebook today is video. If you want to get information about the Olympics, the voice assistant could deliver content from NBC in the U.S., YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Twitch, Facebook or any number of other sources. If you are on a Google device, it is a fair assumption that YouTube will be a default and will get most or all of the user traffic. Amazon may steer users to Prime Video or Twitch if there is suitable content available. Facebook obviously wants its content delivered or at least highlighted. The voice-assistant-as-intermediary concerns Facebook and rightly so.

How Will Facebook Compete?

It is important to note that Facebook has not confirmed the rumors about the new products, but then again tech giants rarely acknowledge any information about their plans until they are ready for release. And, this new information simply adds more details to the leaked story during CES that gave a name to Facebook’s forthcoming product. This all seems like a planned leak to generate interest and gauge consumer feedback in advance of a launch.

The bigger question may be how will Facebook compete with Amazon and Google that have already carved out significant smart speaker market share. We have our answer. The company will cede the speaker market segment to rivals and hope that a Facebook smart display can take leadership in the newer segment that includes visual engagement. This essentially guarantees that consumers will need to acquire Facebook as an extra smart device instead of standardizing on a single assistant for the household.

The other competitive element will be content. Facebook has a lot of content that has proven to be very engaging. It also has a tremendously successful set of messaging apps. Fans of the company’s social networks and messaging services just might value that content and connectivity enough to add Facebook to their smart home portfolio. If it doesn’t work out, Facebook can still build an app and become a tenant on the winning voice assistant platforms.

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