How Facebook Failed To Build A Better Alexa (Or Siri)19 November, 2018 / Articles
Facebook’s Portal looked like a slick alternative to the Amazon Echo speaker when it launched earlier this month, but problems abounded behind the scenes. Facebook had already delayed the video-calling device due to privacy concerns around the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And when it finally did launch, there was a glaring omission: no voice assistant from Facebook. Instead it came with Alexa, meaning anyone who bought the 15.6-inch version for $350 got an awkward gateway to Amazon, whose competing Echo Show cost at least $100 less. It also meant Facebook was blocked from collecting any speech data to train its voice technology further.
Facebook started investing heavily in voice tech from 2013. Yet despite that early start, being one the world’s biggest technology companies with 30,275 employees and booking nearly $16 billion in 2017 profits, the company has yet to plant a stake in technology that lets you talk to computers, widely regarded as the next wave of human-to-machine interfaces.
The omission points to Facebook’s broader difficulties in turning innovative technology into products. Among its previous misfires: Android launcher Home, which shut down in April 2013; virtual currency Credits (closed in Sept. 2013); Snapchat competitors Poke and Slingshot (2014 and 2015) and mobile development platform Parse (2017). In the field of voice, Facebook bought multiple speech-based companies and hired experts specializing in voice technology over the last five years, but it has struggled to turn those investments into useful services, two senior sources who worked at the company told Forbes, largely due to chaotic product priorities and confusion over where researchers should focus their time. “After five years, to still not have a product is shameful,” said one.
Concerted voice efforts came too late by the time Portal became known within the company as a project, some two years ago. “Facebook wanted to use their own speech-to-text technology for Portal, but it was not ready,” said a senior engineering source who spoke to Forbes on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about reputational and legal repercussions. Using Alexa represented “a huge drawback. If you don’t have access to data, it’s hard to progress and learn, and improve things.”
A spokeswoman for Facebook pointed out that Portal customers can activate the device by saying “Hey Portal,” to initiate a call and access device controls, but admitted the company had to partner with Amazon to “provide the range of tools that people have come to expect from a home device.” Facebook did not answer questions from Forbes about its struggles to develop voice technology. In 2016, Facebook’s then head of Messenger, David Marcus, said the company was “not actively working on” voice.