The new Portal and Portal Plus from Facebook are video-enabled smart speakers that support easy video chats. Designed to follow users as they move, the wide-angle camera embedded in the Portal makes people’s digital interactions more fluid and natural, rather than forcing video chatters to sit still or else adjust the screens manually any time they move. It also offers touchscreen functionalities and links seamlessly with Facebook’s Messenger service.
The introduction seems logical; an estimated 400 million people already use Messenger to make calls each month. It also aligns with Facebook’s stated mission of bringing people together, encouraging them to make visual contact with loved ones far away, even as they go about their daily activities. With the Portal, people who likely already use Facebook to keep in touch thus can continue to do so, through an alternative channel that is richer, more personal, and more immediate. But in other ways, the introduction appears less than logical. In particular, Facebook is not known for its hardware. Applying its brand to a physical product, rather than a social media site, may seem foreign to consumers, and in previous efforts, such as a Facebook-branded smartphone, the experiments have not met with great success.
Noting this concern, Facebook accordingly entered into a collaboration with an apparent competitor to produce the Portal. That is, the Portal represents an extended use of Amazon’s Alexa technology, moving from solely voice-activated to video options. The insights and technical knowledge it gained from this collaboration helped Facebook innovate in a field in which it has little experience.
Other challenges may require a bit more consideration though. In particular, Facebook has been rocked by several recent privacy scandals, making questions about how the Portal will collect and use people’s personal conversations, appearance, and locations highly salient. To address concerns that it might listen in without permission, the Portal features a passcode lock, and users can shut down the microphone and video functions with a single button. Furthermore, Facebook promises users that all the data from their video chats are encrypted and never saved. However, such promises may not be very convincing in the modern era of data breaches and hacks.
Still, the appeal of the devices—such as letting two friends share a Spotify listening session or giving grandparents a means to read a story to their distant grandchildren—may overcome these concerns. An estimated 16 percent of U.S. shoppers indicate that they plan to purchase a smart speaker sometime soon, so getting in on this growing market has clear appeal for Facebook.
1. Can Facebook convincingly innovate and sell a physical product? What limitations does it face in doing so?
2. Are consumers who already use Messenger likely to adopt the Portal? What about those who do not?
Source: Mike Isaac and Brian X. Chen, “Facebook’s New Gadget Is a Video-Chat Screen with a Camera that Follows You,” The New York Times, October 8, 2018; Paresh Dave, “Facebook Debuts Smart Speaker for Messenger Video Calls,” Reuters, October 8, 2018