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
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
Amazon’s most popular Echo so far is the $50 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 colors 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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