If recent reports are true, it appears that everybody's favorite privacy-focused company, Facebook, is preparing to bring its own smartwatch (and other wearables) to market sometime in 2021. First reported by The Information, this new wearable could likely run a version of Google's Wear OS, and lean in heavily on Facebook's messaging services, as well as have a focus on health and fitness.
Jitesh Ubrani, Research Manager for Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers at IDC, told AC that he isn't surprised by these whispers at all. "There have been rumors about this for years. Ultimately, the wearable for many companies is a way to gather more information about their users."
With more trusted companies like Samsung, Fitbit, and Apple making some of the best smartwatches available, why would/should anyone even consider strapping a Facebook-made device onto their body? It's all about the network effect.
Whenever I review or test new wearable, one of the first things I look for is whether or not they have a social sharing and/or built-in competition component. For me, and for many others, one of the biggest motivating factors to using a fitness wearable on a regular basis is the drive to beat your friends and family in step challenges or fitness contests. It's fun, it keeps you connected, and it keeps you engaged with both the device and its platform.
If a smartwatch or fitness band doesn't offer a social component, it's not worth having in my opinion.
Many of the top fitness wearable brands are successful not just because of their hardware and sensor prowess but because of this social aspect. Think of Fitbit, Apple, and Garmin's leaderboards and challenges, or those offered by apps like Strava and MapMyRun. Even companies that don't have their own social components generally tie into at least one of the popular social apps (sometimes including Facebook). If a device doesn't do this, I pretty much always cast it aside after the review process is over.
This, ultimately, is Facebook's secret sauce. Between the "blue app," WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, Oculus, etc., Facebook IS the fabric that connects nearly 1/3 of the world's population. I can easily imagine all sorts of fun opportunities to compete and connect across the Facebook brand with a smartwatch, and it's easy to see why Facebook would be happy with such an arrangement: vast amounts of user data.
Many (including myself) claim to be up in arms about Facebook's dubious data collection habits, but they sure seem only to represent a very vocal minority. The company continues to grow its user base across its various properties, and it sure doesn't seem like it's scaring too many folks off.
When asked about Facebook's track record with data privacy, Ubrani downplayed the company's sketchy history. "We in the tech community tend to be far more aware of these types of things... I would wager that the general consumer is less concerned. As long as Facebook presents a good value proposition, I think people would be willing to trade their information for the ability to use this device. Everyone knows what Facebook does with the data it collects, yet they continue to use the apps anyway."
Let's face it — Facebook probably already knows 95% of your personal info anyway, so giving up another 2-3% may not be a deal-breaker for the potential benefits a wearable device brings.
Assuming that it really isn't "always listening" like the somewhat creepy Amazon Halo, a Facebook smartwatch could have all of the basic health and tracking chops to measure up to the best fitness trackers from the likes of Amazfit and Xiaomi. After all, those companies have shown that basic step, sleep, and exercise tracking are pretty much table stakes at this point. It doesn't have to measure up to Garmin, Fitbit, or Apple in terms of accuracy; it just needs to be consistent.
Heck, even if it did have microphones, at least then you'd know how you got that Instagram ad for Oreos right after you mentioned to your partner how much you were jonesing for some at 11:00 pm last night (I kid, but we've all been there).
Look, I get why you might be wary of entrusting your health, fitness, and sleep data to Facebook, not to mention your messaging data. Aside from the company's ambitious stated goal "bringing the world closer together," its entire purpose is to gobble up data that it can then monetize via ad sales. Its largest competitor in that space, Google, recently completed its acquisition of Fitbit whereby it had to make strong commitments to regulators not to monetize Fitbit's user data for advertising purposes. By developing its own smartwatch, Facebook won't be bound by such restrictions.
Aside from concerns about monetizing user data, many will also be justifiably worried about the integrity of their data in Facebook's hands. After all, the company has had severe privacy issues over the past several years, including a massive leak that exposed the personal data of over 267 million users.
Fitbit is far from the only tech company with data security issues or privacy woes: just look at Strava or Garmin.
I don't mean to minimize that horrific security failure one bit, but it's not like other, more established wearable companies are immune from personal data issues or concerns. The popular Strava social fitness app has had numerous privacy lapses and data leakages, and fitness industry leader Garmin even had its user data hijacked in a sophisticated ransomwear attack last year. I bring these up only to point out that any company can fall victim to security breaches, so in this respect, it wouldn't be totally fair to hold that against Facebook but not its competitors.
If Facebook does go the route of developing its own smartwatch and other wearables, and I'm betting it will try, I think it would be wise for it to create a new brand for them à la Portal or Oculus — two Facebook properties with generally glowing public perceptions. There'd be no hiding who is behind the product(s), but that simple layer of abstraction could go a long way towards driving initial acceptance and adoption of any potential new devices.
The company would also likely have to price such a smartwatch at or just above cost, similar to what Amazon does with its Echo devices. After all, Facebook is not looking to profit from the hardware; it's the data it wants. Doing this will also help it to undercut the Apple Watch and other similarly-priced devices. Analysts like Ubrani speculate that Facebook could initially offer the new hardware in markets outside the U.S. where it has a better public perception, high engagement, and less criticism or oversight, before more broadly rolling it out to the wider world.
What would a Facebook smartwatch be called? Wristbook? WhatsStrApp? Myspace? Something more obscure? Give us your best guesses in the comments!