Google is permanently disabling a feature on its new Home Mini smart speaker, which was announced last week and starts shipping next Thursday, after a reviewer discovered the device was quietly recording his conversations without his knowledge or consent.
The Google Home Mini secret-recording fiasco is a black eye at the worst possible time for Google (GOOG, GOOGL)
Google will permanently disable a feature in its new Home Mini speaker after a reviewer discovered it was constantly recording his conversations.
Google blames this on a faulty button and says it is rolling out a fix while it explores a long-term solution.
This means if you buy a Google Home Mini, you can't perform long-presses on top of the device, which activates voice recognition, and you can't tap on it to stop an alarm or even pause or resume music.
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 by pushing its own artificial-intelligence capabilities. And when it comes to choosing which tech company's AI assistant you want powering your smart-home devices, trust is key.
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 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, Google included, have since released Echo competitors, 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 $50 Echo Dot, which has 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.
Last week, Google issued its response to the Echo Dot: the Google Home Mini, a beautiful, upward-facing speaker that comes in more colors than the Echo Dot, is the same price, and uses Google's Assistant instead of Amazon's Alexa.
Though it doesn't connect to other speakers, the Google Home Mini could be a winner. But the Home Mini's recent recording issue, which happened at the very beginning of the product's life span, is 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
This early incident with the Google Home Mini certainly has potential to affect future sales. If you already ordered a Google Home Mini, you probably already know about the issue, and you would be right to be bummed out or annoyed or nauseated. (For what it's worth, you can return any item you bought from the Google Store within 15 calendar days after the day you received it.)
But for people who don't know about the Google Home Mini 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 results about the secret-recording issue. Maybe you decide to buy another, less troubled product. That's not good for Google.
Or let's say you order a Google Home Mini right now without doing any research. You get it in the mail, open it, 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 find 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 serious bug before the product was introduced to the public. Again, it's a trust thing.
That's the real issue: This incident has the potential to follow Google, as well as its Home efforts, down the line. Nobody wants to worry about owning a device that may or may not be recording you without your control or consent — and unless Google manages this carefully, this kind of trust issue could spill into other Google products. If you're trying to decide whether to buy a Google Home, an Amazon Echo, an Apple HomePod, or even other products from these companies, a privacy-related incident like this one 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, I think trust is probably the biggest reason I feel comfortable keeping a device of this kind in my home. I was planning on purchasing a Google Home Mini, but after learning about this episode, I'm not sure if I feel comfortable buying one right now.
This kind of thought could be a problem for Google in its big AI push: Who wants to use Google Assistant, even if it is the superior AI assistant, if people don't feel comfortable using it?
If Google is serious about conquering the living room, it will need to win back the trust of these early Home Mini adopters first and foremost. An important first step would be addressing any privacy concerns people might have about this bug, but it should also communicate how it plans prevent this kind of incident from ever happening again.
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