Hackernoon logoThe Facebook smart speaker — Communications full circle by@jorge.serna

The Facebook smart speaker — Communications full circle

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@jorge.sernaJorge Serna

New rumors surface around product launches in the smart speaker/intelligent assistant space, this time coming from Facebook. There is no real information about the product yet, just a lot of speculation, but reading the TechCrunch article about this I could not help but hear a lot of echoes (pun intended) of topics I have been covering recently:

Let’s look at the aspects from the TechCrunch article that I see related to those.

Communications in a new device

“It would also be sensible for Facebook to allow messaging from the speaker, via voice-dictated text messages, VoIP audio calls or video calling.”

This is fundamentally what Amazon offers with Alexa Calling and Messaging. But instead of creating a new service, Facebook could leverage their own strength in Social Communications. This concept of extending mobile-centric communication services to new devices is part of what I call the “disintegration of the smartphone”. I believe this trend is mostly industry driven, as consumer electronics and telecommunication providers want to create a new demand cycle. What we have not seen yet is significant consumer adoption — specially when compared with the smartphone growth model — , and that is why players are trying to tie these new devices with pieces of their existing ecosystems.

What about WhatsApp?

“As of February, 400 million of Facebook Messenger’s 1.2 billion users communicate via Facebook audio and video calling every month.”

The strength of Facebook Messenger as a communication tool is clear. But what about WhatsApp? US-centric media tend to ignore WhatsApp because it is not that relevant in the US market, but WhatsApp also has over 1.2 billion monthly users and leads many important markets in Europe and Latin America. The problem here is that the current WhatsApp solution does not support several devices, specially for voice and video communications.

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, pushing for multi-device communications can generate an additional “incentive” for WhatsApp also moving into multi-device.

Social Graph is key

“Amazon is already trying to barge into the home communications market with its new Amazon Echo Show version of its smart speaker, which lets people video call each other over its screen. Google has its own Google Home speaker and Apple is preparing to launch the HomePod. But none of them have a ubiquitous cross-device instant messaging platform with a comprehensive social graph the way Facebook does.”

This element is right on point. All players in the smart-speaker space are looking at communications on their devices, but for this, the key elements are:

So Facebook is in the best position here.

That does not mean they have a winning play.

But, are communications the killer app?

The question here is whether a communication service is the center for a new device like a smart speaker.

As I discussed when talking about Amazon Echo, communications was something the device needed, but the Echo existed before having that, and was valuable for a number of uses: shopping, smart home, information, entertainment…

What can Facebook offer in this space?

It is yet to be seen, but while Facebook can leverage their positioning in communications, I am skeptic around a new device that would only (or mainly) do that. They could offer some information/entertainment elements too, just as Apple is positioning their own device around music, but the issues with Facebook’s content are also to be considered here.

No, the platform is the killer app

In the end I believe the success of the smart speaker space will be defined by the support of developers. They are the ones that will create new uses for these devices, making them more relevant as they did in the smartphone market. And that requires that Amazon, Google, Apple and now Facebook will open up their platforms and create incentives for developers as a key strategic point.

Initially this will create a fragmentation of operating systems that will be stressful for developers. For instance, in the past WhatsApp had to develop versions of their app for Nokia, BlackBerry or Windows Phone devices. Since developers will not have resources or the right RoI to target all four (or more) platforms, they will have to bet on some, and eventually there will be consolidation around one or two (the new “iOS” and/or “Android”) of those platforms.

But maybe that will not be a problem for Facebook. They have built their success on mobile on top of Apple’s and Google’s platforms (the Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram apps for iOS and Android), so they may do the same on the smart speaker market. Even if they end up not being a relevant player in the hardware and operating system part of these devices, they may still be the winners in the user engagement fight.

And this may be the main reason behind the Facebook speaker: the goal is not to have a successful device in the market — something Facebook has no experience in — but a tool to force the other players to open up their platforms and then become the main developer there, same as they did in the smartphone market.

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