In the summer of 2017, rumors sprang up that Facebook was working on a smart speaker with a camera and screen, a device that sounded remarkably like the then newly released Amazon Echo Show. Already embroiled in scandals about foreign influence in the 2016 elections, it seemed like perhaps a bad time to think about Facebook releasing hardware. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal unfurled in March 2018, more chatter suggested that Facebook nixed plans to debut the product at its F8 conference, with a source telling Bloomberg that Facebook’s “new hardware products, connected speakers with digital-assistant and video-chat capabilities, are undergoing a deeper review to ensure that they make the right trade-offs regarding user data.” At the end of September, news hit that an additional 50 million Facebook accounts had been hacked by unknown parties. At the same time, Amazon rolled out a sleek new Amazon Echo Show 2, and it was leaked that Google was launching its own smart speaker with a video screen. As October rolled around, I assumed that Facebook’s video smart speaker was going to be delayed well into 2019, or perhaps just disappear quietly into the night.
I was very wrong. On October 8, Facebook casually flicked a lit cigarette into a pool of gasoline and announced that it was releasing Facebook Portal (the ten-inch display for $199) and Facebook Portal+ (the 14-inch display for $349). The Portal, promised Facebook, would do some neat AI tricks, like its Smart Camera, which “stays with the action and automatically pans and zooms to keep everyone in view.” So not only a camera, but a camera that can follow you around!
The reaction online was pretty much what you would expect:
It’s not that nobody trusts Facebook anymore, it’s just that almost nobody does. Product launches are always delicate things, but the timing on this could not be worse. Facebook announcing that it wants you to pay $200 to put a video camera in your home is like Ford announcing a taxi service to drive your kids to school in a Ford Pinto circa 1978.
There’s also a poor track record for Facebook of actually getting hardware into a consumer’s hands, a more difficult task than you might assume. Apple has its network of stores, Amazon has its immense footprint in e-commerce, and even Google has managed to start working with phone carriers for its Pixel smartphone and with big-box retailers like Target and Best Buy to carry the Google Home and Google Home Mini. Facebook has put out exactly one piece of hardware, the HTC First, also known as the “Facebook Phone.” Released in April 2013, the phone was a heavily reskinned Android phone with Facebook placed front and center, and flopped so hard that its price was reduced from $99 to 99 cents within a month of its release.
Let me be clear: I would never put a Facebook Portal in my home. If someone pressed a gun to my temple and made me choose between allowing the NSA or Facebook to install a camera in my home, I would pick the NSA. Sure, I may end up in a black-bag site for saying it would be a good joke to drive a truck full of fertilizer into a federal building (just imagine the look on everyone’s faces!), but at least the NSA wouldn’t sell pics of me getting out of the shower to Allbirds and a men’s clothing subscription service.
All that said, I actually think the Portal fundamentally makes sense. I’ve got an Amazon Show at home, and I used it exactly once to test that it could indeed make video calls, and then never used it again. The problem is that Amazon has no idea who my friends are, and even if I import all of my contacts into Amazon, I can only talk to other people with Amazon Show devices — a vanishingly small number of people. Facebook, on the other hand, has a very good idea of who my friends are, and the Portal is designed to integrate with Facebook’s Messenger service, which a huge number of my friends and family use.
Every Sunday, I FaceTime with my dad back home, mainly so he can watch my 6-month-old daughter grow up. It works pretty well, but I can’t really show his face to my daughter (she mainly wants to put my iPhone in her mouth). I can see a future where we set up a nice, bright 14-inch screen, dial up my dad on Facebook Messenger (increasingly, it seems, the social network of choice for the, ah, let’s say less technically inclined consumer), and let her sit up in front of the screen and babble at her grandfather, while my dad doesn’t have to deal with the headaches of FaceTime.
Even more anecdotally, I see a surprising number of people FaceTiming (or its Android equivalent) in public, walking down the streets of New York while video-chatting with someone on the other end. As the Oldest Millennial, it’s not the sort of behavior that appeals to me, but I think there’s a not-so-insignificant population out there who likes seeing the person they’re talking to, even if they’re talking remotely.
In other words, I think the Portal could be a compelling piece of technology with a real market. Video-chat right now happens, at best, on either a tablet or laptop screen with weird angles, or on a relatively small phone screen. There is a place, I think, for a smart-home speaker that also easily lets you video-chat with friends and family on a large and bright screen. The problem is that, in 2018, it can’t be Facebook that releases it.