Facebook Portal

Facebook Portal is a Smart Display Focused on Video Chat – Here is What is Really Going On

  • Facebook Portal is the fourth major entry into the smart display category and is offered in both 15-inch ($349) and 10-inch ($199) screen sizes
  • Amazon Echo is the onboard voice assistant providing users access to Facebook’s services as well as the more than 40,000 Alexa skills
  • Portal is designed for video chat with a camera that automatically follows users to keep them in frame, with features that overlay graphics on the screen and the ability to video chat with someone through Messenger on a smartphone
  • You cannot currently browse Facebook or send messages from the device

Facebook Portal, the latest entry into the smart display category, officially launched today and is now accepting pre-orders scheduled for delivery Monday, November 12th. Consumers can choose between 15-inch and 10-models selling for $349 and $199 respectively. There is a promotion now which offers $100 discount when ordering two. Both models are available in black and white although there is a black rim around the edge of the screen even on the white version.

The 15-inch version is on a stand that looks like a tower and the screen can rotate to offer both landscape and portrait aspect viewing. The 10-inch version looks suspiciously like the new Amazon Echo Show 2nd generation device which was announced last month.

Alexa Onboard

Maybe the smartest decision by Facebook was the choice to embed Alexa as the onboard voice assistant. This helps Facebook avoid several potential pitfalls. First, it doesn’t have to deal with questions about how few voice apps support the platform. From day one, U.S. users will have more than 40,000 Alexa skills to choose from. Second, it avoids the Bixby problem. Facebook doesn’t have to build out core voice assistant functionality that can accurately interpret and respond to a broad set of queries while dealing with a wide variety of accents and languages. And, it doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of constant unfavorable comparison with Alexa and Google Assistant. Samsung continues to struggle with these consumer perceptions today as it tries to build out Bixby as a comparable voice assistant.

You can use Facebook’s own assistant to call up video chats by saying “Hey Portal,” but everything else appears to run through Alexa. I assume this means two wake word services are constantly listening. This is a big win for Amazon. At least in the short run, Facebook won’t compete directly with Amazon for the general voice assistant of choice for consumers and Alexa gets distribution through another high profile device at a time when Google is snapping up a large number of partners. Rafa Camargo, product VP at Facebook overseeing Portal commented in an interview with Recode:

We looked at [our own assistant], and really our vision is that…the assistant is not the platform. We see a world where you will have multiple assistants, and each one of them will be good and you will use them for different things.

Right now, the Portal assistant only allows you to access video chat through Messenger. However, that could be expanded over time to other domains. It looks like Alexa will get everything else which will continue to be the vast majority of consumer interactions with the smart display. You are also likely to see Alexa get some new Facebook features for Echo devices as a form of reciprocity. That could be an even bigger win for Amazon in the battle to differentiate the Alexa platform from Google Assistant.

It’s All About Video Chat

The core selling feature of Facebook Portal is video chat. In fact, other than the Alexa features, video chat is about all the device can do today. You cannot browse Facebook nor can you send messages through Facebook Messenger. The integration with Facebook and Messenger is designed to make it simple to connect with your friends although that doesn’t seem to be a big advantage over Amazon and Google’s approach to integrating with your contacts list.

A real innovation of the device is the “smart camera” that follows the speaker even when they are moving by using face tracking to keep the subject in frame. This allows you to not only move from side-to-side, but also move further away or closer and the screen adjusts. Facebook also touts a “smart sound” feature that eliminates background noise to make it easier to hear the speaker even in a noisy environment like the kitchen.

Another nice touch is that Portal can also connect with Facebook Messenger users through smartphones. This means not everyone needs to have a Portal for you to video chat with them. It also supports group calls similar to Google Hangouts and the recently upgrades Apple Facetime. A Facebook post states:

“You can call Facebook friends and connections on Messenger even if they don’t have Portal. Calls can be made to and from Messenger-enabled smartphones and tablets. Portal supports group calls of up to seven people at the same time.”

Not Just Video Chat, AR Video Chat

Facebook intends to spice up these video chats with augmented reality (AR) overlays. These are the types of hats, funny faces and backgrounds added to a real-time or recorded video interaction that were popularized by Snapchat. Google Hangouts had these for many years but they apparently were not used with frequency. Facebook is betting that its more consumer focused device and service will make this AR feature a notable differentiator. It does offer Facebook the opportunity to claim the “fun” category in the smart display competitive landscape.

Will Facebook’s Reputation for Privacy Issues Hold Portal Back

Many of the headlines associated with the Portal launch today focused on privacy and whether Facebook could overcome consumer mistrust and backlash about its practices and mishandling of data and security. A small sampling of this privacy-focused coverage include:

  • Ars Technica: Facebook unveils smart displays, promises not to snoop on your video calls
  • Recode: Facebook is audaciously launching a video gadget for your home, called Portal. Is that a good idea?
  • Techcrunch: Facebook, are you kidding?
  • Washington Post: Facebook unveils the Portal, a video chat camera for the people who still trust Facebook
  • The Guardian: Facebook Portal smart screen to launch amid concerns over privacy

Anticipating these headlines and concerns, Facebook devotes 245 words to the subject of “Privacy + Security.” That is about twice the number of words devoted to the explanation of the core video chat features. And, the company also built several features into the product to help assuage consumer concerns. These include a single touch button to turn off the camera and microphone, a physical cover that can slip over the camera lens, a 4-12 digit PIN code to lock the device, on-device processing of the “smart camera” and “smart sound” features that never interact with Facebook servers and the ability to delete Portal’s voice history of spoken interactions with the device. The company also states that all video calls are encrypted and not accessed by Facebook.

The Smart Display Category Heats Up

It is unclear whether these steps will convince consumers to give Facebook Portal a chance. However, it is also unclear whether smart displays will even be popular with consumers. In the first twelve months after the introduction of the Amazon Echo Show, it was adopted by only 5.9% of smart speaker owners.

Facebook Portal is the fourth major entry into the smart display category already served by Amazon Echo Show, Lenovo Smart Display and JBL LinkView. Google Home Hub is expected to debut tomorrow. There are also offerings from Baidu and Sony which are designed to service Chinese and Japanese speaking consumers respectively.

Facebook feels that it needs to have an offering in the smart display category. Smart speakers are gobbling up consumer attention and that is Facebook’s core metric of success. Given that Facebook’s content and strategy are exclusively visual in text and video, a smart speaker is not an obvious opportunity. However, the smart display category could enable Facebook to showcase its greatest assets and enable avid users to have a purpose-built device for their kitchen and family room.

In addition, Facebook says its mission is about “bringing the world closer together.” Facebook’s Caramago told Recode’s Kurt Wagner that, “Almost every person nowadays has someone they’re emotionally very close to or want to be very emotionally close to but that distance has become a factor that is actually eroding that relationship.” You can see how Facebook views video chat through Portal as another point of connection that will complement Facebook posts, Messenger and Oculus. We will have to see whether consumers share a similar view.


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