Facebook Announces Smart Display (Portal), Will Consumers Buy It?

Earlier today Facebook announced its entry (or entries) into the smart speaker/smart display market, called Portal. A full-fledged Amazon Alexa device, it doesn’t “lead” with Alexa. It seeks to differentiate as a Facebook-branded video-calling and chat device:

Portal offers hands-free voice control. You can start a video call simply by saying “Hey Portal” and noting who you’d like to call. Portal also has Amazon Alexa built in, so you have access to a robust voice experience to ask for sports scores, check the weather, control smart home devices, order groceries, and more.

Portal will be sold through Amazon and Best Buy and become available next month. There are actually two devices: Portal and Portal+. The latter has a larger screen that can be rotated. You can have both for $298, making them competitively priced. It’s not clear whether portal devices will be able to interact with Echo Show for video calling, however.

Because I haven’t used one I can speak to the usability of the video calling feature. Given Facebook’s massive built-in audience this proposition should be a winner. However, privacy and trust issues surround Facebook are challenges the company must overcome to make the product a success.

Accordingly, Facebook has taken pains to allay potential privacy fears in its blog post:

  • You can completely disable the camera and microphone with a single tap.
  • Portal and Portal+ also come with a camera cover, so you can easily block your camera’s lens at any time and still receive incoming calls and notifications, plus use voice commands
  • Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.
  • For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers.
  • Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

The company is pre-emptively seeking to address concerns that will be raised by critics and tech journalists. One feature, smart camera, follows speakers around the room. This will strike some as “cool” and others as “creepy.”

In the wake of several data scandals public trust in Facebook has declined, which could impact sales of these devices. Also Facebook is late to the market and faces established competition from Google and Amazon, which just introduced its second-generation Echo Show with a screen. There will be multiple Google Home enabled smart displays for sale this holiday season.

But what are the self-interested or marketing angles here for Facebook? I would speculate they are:

  • A new way to engage and maintain audiences at a time of flat to declining growth in North America (Portal is effectively a digital OOH ad for Facebook itself and constant reminder of the social site)
  • A new device to promote and consume Facebook Watch video, which would include in-stream ads
  • A potential commerce channel (see Marketplace)
  • A new way to interact with businesses on Facebook (longer term)

Beyond not wanting to be left out of this new device category, Facebook has multiple reasons to roll out Portal. It’s possible that pent-up demand for a simple video-calling device will make Portal a hit but that remains to be seen.

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