Under intense scrutiny over privacy and its handling of user data, Facebook apparently believes people will welcome a Facebook device, complete with a camera that follows people around the room, into their homes.
Facebook officially introduced its Portal ($199) and Portal Plus ($399) video communications devices Monday morning, saying that they are now available for pre-order in the U.S., with shipments to begin next month. But while the company is betting the average Facebook user will want a device, experts say the social giant is exhibiting a special kind of tone-deafness.
“Why the hell would anybody, after all these breaches, invite Facebook to put a camera in their homes?” asked futurist and author Amy Webb. She also pointed out that Google released its Pixel 3 smartphone today, one day after shuttering what was left of its Google Plus social network following the discovery of a security glitch that exposed user data.
Jason Kint, CEO of digital content trade association Digital Content Next, bashed the rollout of the devices, saying, “This is straight from the Facebook playbook. Facebook is hell-bent on deploying an audio and video listening device in people’s homes. Given the public’s massive lack of trust in Facebook, this product is likely dead on arrival.”
While there are no advertising opportunities tied to the two devices at launch, it’s not a stretch to say that Facebook will look to monetize the Portal and Portal Plus somewhere down the line.
Forrester Research senior analyst Nick Barber noted that the necessary privacy considerations will make advertising challenging, saying that Facebook could eventually include banner ads on the bottom of the devices’ video feeds, or it could do something similar to what Amazon did when it offered cheaper Fire tablets that served up sponsored screensavers and special offers.
Webb took a longer-term view and focused on data, saying, “It’s the data that gets monetized. All of these smart speakers and devices with speakers and screens are really just containers for artificial intelligence systems that mine our data.”
Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner, questioned the use case for the Portal and Portal Plus, saying, “I am a little concerned about whether people will be buying these devices for this use case and nothing else.” However, Barber believes the Portal and Portal Plus fit a very specific need, pointing out that until now, there has not been a dedicated device for connecting people in different places in this fashion.
There are two voice control options in the devices, and Amazon Alexa and all of its capabilities are built-in.
Steve Hansen, chief technology officer at Rain, an agency that develops voice skills for brands, called the inclusion of Alexa a win for Amazon at the expense of Google and noted, “As brands continue to launch skills, it will be important to know how the Alexa experience behaves on Facebook’s devices.”
Goertz looked at it a different way, asking, “Once a user calls up Alexa, all of a sudden, they are in Amazon’s world: Why not buy an Echo?” On the other hand, Barber felt that Facebook’s devices would be a non-starter without the inclusion of Alexa or another voice assistant.
Ease of use, due to familiarity with the Facebook platform, may end up being one of the selling points for the Portal and Portal Plus, and Forrester’s Barber offered the example of Baby Boomers using the devices to stay in touch with their kids or grandkids with much more involvement and intimacy than current gadgets offer.
Facebook also teamed up with Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio, Food Network and Newsy to bring “immersive experiences” to Portal and Portal Plus, and content from its Facebook Watch video platform can be viewed via the devices.
However, for a broader market, there’s much to fill in. There’s no Hulu or HBO or Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. The lack of support for subscription video services at launch, or even for YouTube, is going to be a “tough sell to consumers,” according to Vincent Thielke, a research analyst at research firm Canalys.
And while there’s no video subscription yet, there’s plenty of other technology under the hood. The social network’s Spark AR augmented reality unit (formerly Camera Effects Platform) was incorporated into the mix, as the Story Time feature enables people to read stories via a teleprompter while custom sound effects and AR visuals help transform the reader’s face into characters from the story.
Knowing its rocky history with privacy, Facebook also built several privacy functions into Portal and Portal Plus. The devices’ cameras and microphones can be disabled with a single tap, and both models come with a camera cover that people can use to block the lens at any time while still receiving calls and notifications and being able to use voice commands—a bit more elegant than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s solution of placing tape over the camera on his laptop.
Video calls on Portal are encrypted, and Facebook does not view, listen to or store content from those video calls.
But even with all of the steps Facebook took to ensure the privacy of Portal and Portal Plus users, there are always unforeseen events. Barber asked, “What could the implications be around privacy if something were to happen along the lines of a hack or a breach?”