Facebook is still trying to make the Portal happen

  • Facebook's new Portal TV is a $149 box with a camera that turns a TV into a giant video-chatting and co-watching device.

    Facebook's new Portal TV is a $149 box with a camera that turns a TV into a giant video-chatting and co-watching device. Courtesy of Facebook

 
 
Posted9/21/2019 6:00 AM

Facebook isn't giving up on its dream of putting a camera in everyone's home.

A year after the privacy-challenged social media company released the first Portal -- its smart-display device designed primarily for video chatting, but not for checking Facebook -- it is adding three more Portal products.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Facebook on Wednesday announced two Portal displays designed to look like picture frames, which will come in 8- and 10-inch sizes for $129 and $179, respectively. It's also making an entirely new kind of product called Portal TV, which is a camera-sporting black box that connects to a television, comes with its own remote and costs $149. The lineup will be available this fall.

The devices have the same core features as the first generation of Portals with some additions. They combine always-on microphones and the Alexa virtual assistant with a touch screen (or in the case of the Portal TV, your existing TV screen) and wide-angle video camera. The cameras automatically zoom in people talking and can follow them around the room. There are augmented-reality features to wear fruit or cats on your head, or to play a game throwing virtual doughnuts at a friend, as well as more interactive books to read to kids from far away.

They are still lacking some important options. You can't check your Facebook feed unless you log in to the Facebook site using Portal's web browser, and there's no way to livestream from the camera. There's the ability to co-watch TV shows but only a limited number of streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video, Showtime, CBS All Access and Red Bull TV.

Facebook is betting on lower prices (the first Portals cost $199 and $349) and the addition of WhatsApp support and streaming to help convince a sliver of its more than 2 billion users to buy a Portal, vs. more popular options from Google and Amazon.

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Portals will account for just 4 percent of smart-display shipments in 2019, says David Watkins, an analyst at market research firm Strategy Analytics. He cites high prices and privacy concerns as reasons the smart displays haven't taken off more.

The most popular smart display in North America is Google's Nest Hub, with Amazon's Echo Show in second place, according Strategy Analytics. It estimates the smart-display market will hit 31 million devices globally in 2019. (The devices are especially popular in China, where companies like Baidu and Xiaomi sell inexpensive versions of their own.)

At a press event in San Francisco, Facebook's head of augmented and virtual reality, Andrew Bosworth, declined to share any Portal sales numbers. Instead he pointed to the company making new versions of devices as an indication that it was a promising product.

While Facebook hasn't yet proved itself as a hardware company -- and has had repeated problems with privacy -- it does have people's contact lists, said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Their claim to fame is everybody on Facebook," Pachter said. "They're thinking, we'll have you telecommunicate with your family and your friends because you're already on Facebook with the people you talk to all the time. Except we're not." But in many cases, people don't want to communicate with most of their Facebook "friends."

The company is continuing to push privacy on the new devices. A physical cover slides over the camera, which also acts as an off switch for the device's microphone. It also added WhatsApp, giving users access to end-to-end encrypted video chats on a Portal.

While Facebook does have third-party vendors who listen to some recorded exchanges with the voice assistants to improve how the product works, it is offering an option for any users to opt out.

Continuing the investment in hardware might seem out of left field for Facebook, but Jason Low, an analyst at Canalys, said it's a way to keep the mostly mobile Facebook users engaged with the service in their homes.

If Portal doesn't take, it could be remembered alongside of one the industry's other notable hardware failures, he added.

"I think Facebook Portal is analogous to the [Amazon] Fire Phone," Pachter said. "It's a solution in search of a problem, and there are already really good solutions out there."

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