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Facebook’s rumored smart speaker would be DOA

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Mark Zuckerberg Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

If Facebook is planning to make a smart speaker, it should really reconsider.

A report in Digitimes today says that Facebook’s Building 8 research group is developing a smart speaker with a 15-inch touch panel. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of this: Digitimes has a mixed track record on tech rumors; supply chain sources can misidentify projects or describe early tests that don’t make it to market; Facebook doesn’t have a voice assistant yet; and a 15-inch screen on a speaker seems kind of ridiculous. Asked for comment, a Facebook representative said, “We don’t have anything to share at this time.”

All that being said, it still seems entirely possible that Facebook would want to get in on the smart speaker game. Facebook doesn’t have a role in the smart home yet, despite having its tendrils in so many other facets of our lives. And even though Amazon has a strong early lead, the smart speaker space is really just getting started. Facebook may well think it has something to offer between video chatting, photos, its increasing focus on video, and the huge number of events organized on the platform. It could also give Facebook’s chat AI, known as “M,” another platform to run on.

Still, it’s hard to imagine this going very well. For one, Facebook already has a bad track record with hardware. In 2013, Facebook tried to make a custom Android phone, called the HTC First, designed around the News Feed. The phone itself wasn’t bad (we gave it a 7.9 and commended its 4.3-inch display), but absolutely no one wanted it. It was placed on deep discount just a month later, described as “a disaster” weeks after that, and went off the market a month later. No one wanted to use the device’s Facebook-centric custom home screen on other Android phones either, and it seems to have quietly disappeared the next year.

This obviously didn’t happen because people dislike Facebook. More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, with more than half of them visiting the site every single day.

But even though people enjoy visiting Facebook, they still have a big problem with the site: they don’t trust it. It’s seen as too big, too suspicious, too demanding. A recent HuffPost / YouGov poll found that most American adults don’t think they can rely on the company to protect their information. Of the survey’s respondents, 28 percent said they don’t trust Facebook “at all” with their personal data, and 34 percent said they have “not very much” trust in the company. Another 32 percent said they only “somewhat” trusted Facebook.

That survey isn’t alone in those findings. The Daily Dot reported on another poll last year that found almost all American adults are worried about social media sites’ handling of their privacy. In 2013, BuzzFeed News reported on a poll that found that 61 percent of Americans “do not trust Facebook at all” to protect their personal information.

Video producer (and former Verge staffer) Sam Sheffer made this video two years ago about people’s fears (including his own) that Facebook is tapping their phone’s microphone and using what they discuss to target ads. This isn’t at all correct, and is likely near-impossible due to app permissions, but it illustrates the extent to which people are worried about Facebook spying on them.

Of course, it’s worth asking why people still use Facebook if they feel that way, but I think the answer is probably pretty simple: they’re already doing it, and so is everyone they know. Facebook is helpful for event planning and birthday reminders. But you don’t need to use every aspect of Facebook, and you certainly don’t need to bring a Facebook-made speaker with always-on microphones into your home.

While Facebook’s supposed speaker wouldn’t necessarily be doing anything differently than Amazon, Google, or Apple, it would have far more immense of a privacy hurdle to overcome. Yes, Amazon and Google are trying to target ads to you across the entire internet, and that’s kind of annoying. But neither of them includes the possibility of accidentally posting something to a profile page where hundreds of your friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances will see it.

I don’t have an extreme distrust of Facebook, but even I’m occasionally worried about accidentally clicking those little blue buttons on websites and spamming my friends. I’m sure I’m not alone in that, and when amplified out to an entire gadget that would likely be designed to monitor what you’re saying, that’s a lot to worry about.

It’s tough to see Facebook getting past these problems. If the HTC First incident has shown anything, it’s that making a good-enough alternative isn’t enough for Facebook to make a dent. Facebook can certainly draw its users’ attention to new products — but its users remain hesitant when asked to bring those products physically into their lives.