Facebook is reportedly developing a smartwatch to take on Apple, and while those of us who have been paying attention to Facebook’s shenanigans for several years now are cringing, clearly there’s a market for Facebook hardware—look at the success of its smart display, Portal.
But a smartwatch may be a different story. If you’ve been reading between the lines, Facebook’s interest in wearables may not come as a surprise. We already know it’s tinkering on a pair of AR glasses with Ray-Ban, and deep-dive blogs from its Facebook Reality Labs have hinted at “soft wristbands,” “haptic gloves” and “wrist-mounted wearables” as key elements to interacting with AR interfaces. However, those were more theoretical. This purported smartwatch is very real and will possibly include two cameras, a heart rate monitor, and tie-ins to Facebook’s social media platforms.
According to The Verge, the unnamed and unconfirmed Facebook smartwatch will have a 1080p auto-focus camera on the back, and another on the front for video calls. That’s somewhat odd, when you think about how most smartwatches are designed. However, it appears that Facebook is taking the same sort of approach as the Fitbit Blaze, where the watch itself can be popped out of a stainless steel frame. Any videos or photos snapped from the wrist will be sharable to Facebook’s other apps, including Instagram. The report also claims that the watch will come in white, black, and gold, and support standalone connectivity via LTE.
A recent Information report corroborates some of these details, and adds that the watch will run on an open-source version of Android. (Though, eventually, Facebook reportedly plans to build its own operating system. To which we say: Good luck.) The watch is also envisioned as a way to connect to other health and fitness services, such as Peloton and Strava, without having to go through either Apple or Google. Messaging on the watch will supposedly “focus on quick interactions that would otherwise be done with a smartphone.”
Facebook is obviously planning some sort of AR ecosystem that involves a smartwatch. It’s publicly dropped hints about detecting electrical signals from your brain to your hand for gesture control, a technology that’s referred to as electromyography. And while it sounds like science fiction, there are already accessories that do this and Apple just announced its own version of this is coming in watchOS 8 later this fall.
There’s a hell of a lot to unpack here, but mostly, it’s unclear where a Facebook smartwatch is supposed to fit in an increasingly crowded landscape. At Google I/O, Google and Samsung announced they were joining forces to create a “unified” Wear OS. It was a bold announcement, and if the companies can pull it off, it’ll likely be the dominant platform that everyone but Apple and iOS users will flock to. Huawei and OnePlus are two other companies that have recently announced their own smartwatches. (Though the latter was a complete travesty.) Then there’s the pesky fact that the Apple Watch utterly dominates the field, with a years-long lead that’s left the competition scrambling. Another potential problem is third-party app ecosystems—the lack of developer support for Tizen OS is exactly why Samsung switched back to Google’s Wear OS. Given that both reports say Facebook aims for a high-end watch in the $300-$400 range, it has to deliver here. Sure, it’s got a decent number of its own apps, but these alone won’t be enough to convince users already invested in other platforms to switch.
Facebook is not only late to the game, but it’s got the difficult task of convincing consumers they should trust Facebook with their personal health data. When Google initially bought Fitbit, it sparked fears that Google would misuse Fitbit’s treasure trove of health data. So much so, that at the time it led many to ponder Fitbit alternatives, even though it took more than a year for the deal to be officially approved. Facebook ranked last in Insider’s 2020 U.S. Digital Trust survey, and a 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60% of Americans don’t trust the company at all when it comes to protecting personal data. Health data is even more sensitive. It raises questions as to whether any Facebook-created health feature will be compelling enough to convince users to give its smartwatch a go—especially when FDA-cleared heart health features on smartwatches are now commonplace and other monitoring capabilities for sleep apnea and blood glucose levels are rumored to be in the works.
I’m well aware that if you want your health data to remain private, smartwatches are certainly risky. But we’re way past that now. These devices can and have saved lives, and despite some early skepticism, wearables aren’t going anywhere. Why pick a smartwatch made by a company whose founder called early users “dumb fucks” for trusting him? Why trust the company that had a full-page temper tantrum in several national newspapers because Apple introduced stronger privacy features? I’ve got two drawers bursting with smartwatches launched in 2020—there are plenty of lesser evils to choose from.
But Facebook seems unfazed by the fact that its terrible reputation may not inspire people to splurge on its smartwatch. According to The Verge, the company is already working on second and third generations of the smartwatch, even though the first won’t launch—if it launches—for at least another year. Who knows, Facebook could always prove us all wrong. And if it doesn’t, well we can all grab the popcorn and watch the disaster unfold.