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11 October 2018

Facebook Portal apparently not a prank, Alexa only saving grace

Facebook inadvertently crowned itself the world’s poorest judge of timing this week, launching what many have been quick to label the worst technology products of the year – the Portal and Portal+ video communication devices. A lifeline for public enemy number one, however, could come on the back of Amazon – whose Alexa smart assistant is powering the new devices with scope for Alexa’s thousands of Skills to liven up the party. Admittedly, we’re really clutching at straws here.

The thought process of Zuckerberg and his team is just mindboggling. “We’ve had 50 million accounts compromised, how can we possibly recover from this major setback and win back consumer trust?” … “I’ve got it – we’ll install cameras in their homes.” It transpires that Portal’s initial launch date was set during the Cambridge Analytica scandal where 87 million accounts were harvested, so the latest outrage has clearly been deemed trivial in comparison.

Privacy was therefore heavily emphasized in Facebook’s launch announcement, promising not to listen to, view, or keep the contents of Portal video calls. Artificial intelligence provides additional layers of security, with Smart Camera and Smart Sound technology running locally on Portal devices, not on Facebook servers. It also swears the cameras do not use facial recognition. Of course, once you access your account on a Portal device, Facebook already has everything it needs to know.

Surely then Portal must do exactly what it says on the tin; serve as a portal for Facebook to push advertising into the home? The fact advertising was not mentioned once in the press release was initially cause for concern, until Rafa Camargo, who is heading up the Portal project, told the BBC that advertising was not currently Portal’s intention. But the way we see it, as an advertising business it seems an inevitability that ads will eventually creep onto Portal devices. Either that or Facebook will gradually introduce features which collect data from Portal for targeted advertising elsewhere.

Security on the hardware layer has also been stressed. The camera and microphone can be completely disabled at a tap and the camera also comes with a cover. We’re not sure what Facebook expected, but not a single one of these security and privacy promises have quelled the general distrust for the company, going by the online community consensus.

Alexa’s inclusion rather than Facebook developing its own smart assistant was a slight surprise given the recent chatter around the advertising portion of Amazon’s business. But the only real alternative is Google Assistant and that was realistically never going to happen.

So, in the wake of the #DeleteFacebook trend, partnering with a revered voice in the industry might just save Facebook Portal’s bacon. Facebook may be handing a rival a free platform with Portal, but we believe most voice-powered devices in the future will cater for multiple systems anyway.

That said, Portal users can ask Alexa to start video calls via Facebook Messenger to users on any device running Messenger, while the more expensive Portal+ can automatically zoom and pan around a room – adapting if there are multiple people entering or leaving the scene. Meanwhile, Smart Sound technology minimizes background noise and enhances the voice of whoever is talking.

“It’s like having your own cinematographer and sound crew direct your personal video calls,” Facebook states. Seriously, who decided this simile was a good idea?

Augmented reality effects, powered by Facebook’s Spark AR platform, are also included and this feature is being marketed at parents as a way to make video calls more interactive – via the Story Time feature which comes with custom visuals and sound effects. This interactivity is how Facebook is trying to differentiate from other mediums of video messaging, with listening to music together another example, to which end Facebook has already partnered with Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio, with more to come soon. Interestingly, Amazon Music is missing from the list.

As we mentioned, Alexa Skills, the voice assistant’s suite of predeveloped tools, was not a feature mentioned specifically by Facebook, but some tools seem to be included as Facebook notes Alexa can be used to bring up sports scores, check the weather, control smart home devices, and order groceries, among others. By enabling third party developers to integrate different services or devices with Alexa on Portal, Facebook’s new devices will appeal to a much wider audience.

Pandora said in a statement, “Thanks to Pandora, music can be a part of the way you communicate. As of today, all listeners across ad-supported, Plus, and Premium tiers can play their music on Pandora using the power of their voice with Alexa, or share their favorite tunes while chatting with up to six friends directly on Portal’s touchscreen interface. And, when played, music will be magically synced across your Portal devices.”

There we have it, Facebook is pitching Portal as a “voice communication device” but the two products are indeed much more and should be placed in the smart speaker bracket along with the big boys to reflect that. With a monthly active user base of more than 2.2 billion, attracting just a smidgen would put Facebook on the map along with Google Home and Amazon Echo devices, the latter of which has a market share of 82.3%, according to a Canalys analysis. Despite its enormous user base, we struggle to see Facebook gaining any significant market share.

Available only in the US from next month, the 10-inch 1280×800 Portal will cost $199 and the 15-inch 1920×1080 Portal+ is priced at $349. The two can also be purchased together for a discounted $298.

Portal’s standout feature in our view is the exclusion of the Facebook news feed – a wise decision from the company and one we expect it didn’t take lightly. A sign of things to come for Facebook, perhaps?