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Facebook F8 2018: What we don’t see will matter more than what we do

A Facebook device to rival the Amazon Echo and Google Home appears to have been put on hold

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced intense criticism of his company's relationship with its users' data
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced intense criticism of his company's relationship with its users' data

Facebook is set to hold its annual F8 developer conference, expected to reveal software updates and its latest advances in virtual reality. But more significant than what will be unveiled is what isn’t - highlighting how this event couldn’t come at a worse time.

Around 5,000 attendees will watch CEO Mark Zuckerberg take to the stage at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in California at 6am PDT (6pm BST), in what will be an extraordinary exercise in damage limitation.

The company continues to reel from revelations that the UK data firm Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook user data for the purpose of political propaganda during the 2016 US Presidential elections and Brexit campaign.

Less than a month ago, Mr Zuckerberg was sat before Congress answering questions about how this was able to happen, while just this week one of the company’s board members left Facebook over an apparent clash over privacy policy.

It is therefore no surprise that what was likely to be Facebook’s big announcement at this year’s conference - a home assistant that would essentially double as a listening device - has reportedly been scrapped from the agenda.

Facebook has been late to introduce a smart voice assistant, after successful launches from other technology giants like Amazon, Apple and Google proved that the market for such a product is massive.

But despite some privacy concerns surrounding the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home, none of Facebook’s rivals currently suffer from the same stigma that the social network has gathered in recent months.

The data scandal surrounding Facebook has meant the company might be holding back on releasing new technology

According to a March report from Bloomberg, Facebook has put plans to introduce new home products on hold, in order to not prolong negative press from the data scandal. Focus-group testing for an artificial intelligence-powered device also drew concern from people about having a Facebook-branded device in their living rooms, according to the publication’s sources.

But while Facebook may still release the hardware later this year, the focus of F8 2018 will be on assuaging the anger of its users while also placating its developers - many of whom depend on the liberal sharing of personal data for their own services to work.

This delicate balance may also mean less of the usual techno-utopian vision that Mr Zuckerberg usually puts forward at this time of the year. Alongside the usual “connecting the world” platitudes are usually ground-breaking technologies that display how Facebook is using its billions for the good of humanity.

Last year it was about a device that lets you “hear with your skin” and a brain-computer interface that allows people to type using just their thoughts. This year, the most exciting announcements will be around shorter term goals of augmented and virtual reality technologies.

In February this year, Facebook’s vice president of AR and VR Andrew Bosworth said F8 would reveal “the biggest AR/VR news from Facebook to date.” Given what’s happened since then, this may well be just a sideshow.

In a series of Facebook posts leading up to the conference, Mr Zuckerberg highlighted the work Facebook has been doing to "keep people safe" through new tools that will better respect people's privacy.

"One thing I learned from my experience testifying in Congress is that I didn't have clear enough answers to some of the questions about data," Mr Zuckerberg said.

"We're working to make sure these controls are clear, and we will have more to come soon."

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