Aug 1, 2019

Big Tech giants battle for smart speaker dominance

Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod. Photo: John Brecher for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Eager for a place in the home, tech giants are beefing up their smart speaker products, hoping to find just the right combination of screens, speakers and features that will stick with consumers.

Why it matters: There's a lot of potential in the smart speaker market, especially for the big companies like Google and Facebook whose traditional advertising streams face slowed growth projections. But balancing privacy concerns with enough functionality to attract users is proving to be tricky.

Driving the news: "Facebook has approached Netflix, Disney and other media companies about putting their streaming services on a new Facebook device for making video calls from televisions," The Information reports.

  • The device, due to launch this fall, would use the same video-calling technology that Facebook uses in its video camera smart speaker, Portal.
  • Facebook teased during Recode's Code Conference earlier this year that it aimed to expand the Portal line to include products with more features.

Meanwhile, Google's latest product, the Nest Hub Max, is just hitting the market. After forgoing a camera in the Home Hub that debuted last year, the new model adds one to enable home security and video chat.

  • At the same time, Amazon is exploring ways to put Alexa into even more devices, reportedly including a home robot.

Between the lines: So-called ambient computing — a computing connection that is a voice command away wherever you are — is often billed as the next big thing.

  • To the degree that searches move away from phones and computers, it's imperative for Google to be there, with Facebook and Amazon also seeing a benefit in owning whatever that next device is at the center of consumers' lives.

Yes, but: There's no evidence yet that Facebook's Portal has been a hot market item. And Google seems to be eager to increase usage of its line, giving away Home Minis to everyone from Golden State Warriors fans to those living with paralysis.

  • Amazon was first to the market with the Echo, and Alexa has dominated, capturing 35% of global smart speaker sales, which is projected to reach $23 billion by 2025, according to Allied Market Research.

What's next: Expect more hardware products and new categories from the tech giants, but also look for Amazon and Google to continue to encourage other hardware makers to incorporate their voice assistants into their products.

Be smart: It's unclear if what's holding consumers back from some of the more expensive, video-based smart speaker items is privacy concerns, price or just a lack of need. But for now, it seems that most consumer adoption has come from traditional speakers without fancy cameras or chat devices.

Data: Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals

Go deeper: How Amazon will take over your house

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How Amazon will take over your house

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In recent years, Amazon has made a series of investments, acquisitions and R&D moves in the smart home industry. None seemed particularly consequential on its own, but with a real estate deal last week, Amazon appears to have captured first-mover advantage in one of the most important new industries on the planet.

Why it matters: With the deals, Amazon has taken a pioneering lead in what has come to be called "surveillance capitalism," which includes some of the biggest businesses of the future, like 5G, autonomous vehicles and smart cities. Now, the behemoth, with its edge in this new economy, is positioned to explode its revenue.

Go deeperArrowAug 1, 2019

Facebook rolls out tool to let users control data collected by outside apps

Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Facebook on Tuesday introduced a new setting to let users view and control data from apps and websites that send Facebook information about user activity away from the app. Facebook is also giving users the ability to clear this information from their account if they choose to, something the company said it was working on doing last year.

Why it matters: The new tool is supposed to give users more control over how their data is shared, in light of revelations through news stories — primarily the Cambridge Analytica scandal — that other companies can access and share user data with Facebook.

Go deeperArrowAug 20, 2019

Facebook contractors transcribed voice messages

Facebook has paid outside contractors to transcribe some users' voice messages, Bloomberg's Sarah Frier reported.

Why it matters: Earlier this month both Apple and Google suspended similar programs aimed at providing quality control for automated voice transcription services, and Facebook says it has done the same. But Facebook's long record of privacy problems, culminating in a recent $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, means that every misstep it makes in this area further frays public trust.

Go deeperArrowAug 14, 2019