Facebook to Delay Smart Display Launch and Add Privacy Controls

Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier reported yesterday that Facebook will not unveil its highly anticipated smart display, named Portal, at the annual F8 developer conference in May, but still plans to launch the device later in the year. Voicebot wrote an extensive piece Sunday on whether now was the right time for Facebook to be invading the home with voice assistants and devices that listen to your conversations, learn more about your daily habits and include facial recognition. The negative media coverage and public sentiment directed at the company at the current time would almost certainly provide a serious headwind against device adoption. The Bloomberg article stated:

Facebook has decided not to unveil new home products at its major developer conference in May, in part because the public is currently so outraged about the social network’s data-privacy practices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The article added, “While the hardware wasn’t expected to be available until the fall, the company had hoped to preview the devices at the largest annual gathering of Facebook developers.” I had assumed they would move forward despite the obvious problems, because that is what Facebook always does. However, it appears company executives have received and taken good counsel to delay the announcement until a more favorable public relations climate can be established. Facebook will still launch the product this year because its large international business means the company is not all about the U.S. and it fears losing power with the rise of the new voice assistant intermediaries. This is about timing. It may also be about some additional engineering changes the company now plans to make to the Portal smart display.

Facebook Will Add Privacy Controls to Portal

Increased public scrutiny has also caused Facebook to rethink its device architecture and how it can enhance privacy. The Information’s Cory Weinberg is reporting (N.B. paywall) this morning:

As Facebook faces a storm of criticism about how it handles its trove of user data, the company is taking steps to secure users’ information in its first-ever foray into smart-home devices.

Weinberg goes on to say, “One of the devices under development, called Portal, would use facial-recognition technology to help set up video calls between friends and family members, according to people familiar with the matter. Facebook now plans to process and store video data on the device, rather than on the company’s servers.” That is a significant move and a material change to device architecture.

Facebook will Still Capture Personal Data in the Cloud

Most smart speakers today only send data to the cloud after the “wake word” such as “Alexa” or “Cortana” is recognized. Mycroft, the open source smart speaker software and hardware company, stresses that user data never leaves the device and it has the highest level of privacy in the market. Amazon, Google and Microsoft are clear that they are not listening for anything other than wake words, record only interactions with the voice assistant and use the cloud to respond to consumer requests. However, the cloud elements of their architectures ensure high quality interactions and access to a wide range of content that would never be available locally on a device.

Mycroft is proving that local processing is possible, but it comes with limitations that Facebook is unlikely to fully embrace. Facebook is not making this move for device performance reasons because it will almost certainly encumber some features it would like to implement. Rather, the move is intended to address public perception and trust issues. The fact that they intend to do it with video at the edge and not just audio will require more processing power and on-device memory, but it is clearly achievable as Apple has demonstrated with the iPhone X.

These moves by Facebook are likely necessary, but it should be clear that personal data generated by a smart display device will wind up in the cloud in Facebook servers. This is critical for voice assistants to deliver robust user experiences today and enable personalization that will increase the value to consumers. You should expect a lot of media scrutiny and several consumer advocates to make a lot of noise about privacy no matter what Facebook does. The real story will be what consumers do. Up to this point, few have taken steps to limit their privacy exposure on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. If the Portal device proves popular, we can likely expect more of the same.

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