Facebook is reportedly developing a smartwatch, set to debut next summer, that will feature a detachable display with a front-facing selfie camera and a rear 1080p camera that can be used when the display is removed from the wristband. Accessories would be produced so that the display could be attached to items like backpacks.
That’s important for Facebook, which has seen Apple limit the amount of data it can collect on iPhones. It’s also at the mercy of Apple on other issues, such as how it can handle in-app payments.
Facebook already sells hardware products including the Portal video calling device and Oculus Quest. Both products have received strong reviews, though the company has never released sales numbers for them. The company has also confirmed that it’s developing AR-based smart glasses set to be released later in 2021; someday the watch could be used as a controller for the glasses, according to The Verge.
Platform power — Escaping the control (and whims) of hardware makers has long been a goal of Facebook, going back to 2013 when it released a Facebook-branded phone in partnership with HTC. The smartphone was designed to use Facebook Home, a version of Android with close integration with the social network. That phone never went anywhere, however, because it was terrible.
Every tech company wants platform control for the same reason Facebook does. When you own the platform, you have the power to dictate the rules. And if other parties begin making money on your platform, you can charge a tax on their success. Like how Apple makes money every time someone sells a game on iOS, Facebook makes money every time someone sells a game on Oculus.
Market challenges — Facebook, of course, has throughout its life been mired in controversy for collecting vast sums of users’ personal data and poorly protecting it. The smartwatch would reportedly feature not just cameras for uploading content to Facebook, but also a heart rate monitor for tracking vitals.
Whether or not average consumers would be okay with giving Facebook health information is a big question. Privacy concerns haven’t stopped most people from using Instagram, but a $400 smartwatch is a very different proposition that doesn’t benefit from the network effects that keep many people, begrudgingly using Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp. The hardware would need to be pretty compelling since the market for smartwatches is already dominated by Apple, which sells the Watch Series 6 at the same price.
It’s hard to see Facebook selling many smartwatches, but maybe it could move a few million smartwatches and hedge against further attacks by Apple. Even if it doesn’t work, Facebook has reportedly only spent around $1 billion developing the smartwatch, a small sum for a company that throws off cash with such carefree abandon.