Google’s new Home Mini smart speaker, which was announced and released just last week, is getting one of its features permanently disabled after a reviewer discovered the device was quietly recording his conversations without his knowledge or consent.
Google blames this event on a faulty button, and says it is rolling out a fix to disable the feature permanently while the company explores a long-term solution. Google says it only received “a few reports” of the issue.
Not only is this embarrassing for Google, it’s happening at the worst possible time for the search giant, as it tries to match Amazon’s efforts in the living room with its own artificial intelligence push.
Google’s Android is the dominant mobile operating system in the world, and Chrome is the world’s most popular web browser — but despite its many efforts over the years, like the Chromecast, Google has yet to conquer the living room.
Amazon got a head start on everyone else in Silicon Valley with the Echo, a voice-controlled speaker that’s extremely quick to respond and can help you set timers, check the weather, get the news, and so much more — all hands-free. Other tech companies have since released their own Echo competitors, Google included, but Amazon hasn’t rested on its laurels, and continues to roll out new Echo devices in all shapes and sizes.
Amazon’s most popular Echo so far is the $US50 Dot, a diminutive Echo with all the same qualities of the larger product in a smaller package; it can also connect to other speakers to leverage their (presumably) better audio systems. So last week, Google issued its response to the Echo Dot: the Google Home Mini, a beautiful upward-facing speaker that comes in more colours than the Echo Dot, costs the same price, and uses Google’s Assistant instead of Amazon’s Alexa.
Though it doesn’t connect to other speakers like the Echo Dot, the Google Home Mini could be a winner. But the Home Mini’s recent recording issue, which happened toward the very beginning of the product’s lifespan, is definitely a black eye for Google’s smart-home efforts in general and could cause real issues for Google down the line.
It all comes down to trust
The secret-recording fiasco could impact potential Google Home Mini sales. If you already bought a Google Home Mini, you probably already know about the issue, as the company rolls out the update to remove the button’s functionality while it determines a longterm solution. Current Home Mini customers would be right to be bummed out, or annoyed, or nauseated. But for people that don’t own a Google Home Mini, or don’t know about the product yet (it’s only a week old, after all), that’s where the real problems could come into play.
Maybe you do a quick Google search to learn more about the Home Mini. Odds are, if you do your research, you will find some search results about the secret-recording issue. Maybe you decide on another, less-troubled product. That’s not good for Google.
Or, let’s say you buy a Google Home Mini right now without doing any prior research. You get it in the mail, open it up, and try using its various features. You try pressing the button on top of the device to activate the Assistant, but it doesn’t work. What gives? You look it up online, only to discover Google disabled the button after someone discovered their Home Mini was constantly recording them.
That must not feel good as a customer: to have a feature you can’t use, and to know that Google didn’t catch this extremely serious bug in the first place.
And that’s the real issue: This fiasco has the potential to follow Google, as well as its Home efforts, down the line. And if you’re trying to decide whether to buy a Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, or any other similar product, this could be a deciding factor. It’s hard to imagine Apple facing similar issues with its forthcoming HomePod, as the company takes privacy and encryption very seriously. And as someone who has owned an Amazon Echo for nearly two years, trust is probably the biggest reason I feel comfortable keeping a device of this kind in my home.
Unless Google manages this crisis carefully, this worry about constant recording — again, a trust issue — could spill into other Google products. Who cares if Google Assistant is the superior AI assistant if no one feels comfortable using it?
If Google is truly serious about conquering the living room, it will need to win back the trust of these early Home Mini adopters, and take meaningful steps to protect people’s privacy and prevent this kind of incident from ever happening again in the future.
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