Facebook has launched its first piece of hardware – Portal, a smart speaker which aims to drive engagement with Facebook’s Messenger platform. But its lack of interoperability with WhatsApp will hinder the appeal of the device.
Portal from Facebook consists of two devices: Portal which looks just like the Amazon Echo Show at $199, and Portal+ with a 15.6” screen for $349.
A lot of thought has gone into these devices which are being launched at a very sensitive time for Facebook when it comes to privacy and security:
1. Amazon: Alexa has been built into the device and is activated with the normal wake word and can do all of the normal stuff that one would expect of an Alexa enabled device. The one exception is communication which is all Facebook Messenger and is controlled and activated using the portal wake word. Essentially, this is a Facebook ecosystem device where Alexa is present as a guest. However, WhatsApp is missing, which I think is a problem (see below).
2. Privacy: Facebook includes a plastic shield to put over the camera lens as well as the ability to physically disconnect the microphone when the device is not in use. The portal voice requests remain resident on the device and all Alexa traffic is sent to Amazon in the normal way. All video and voice calls are fully encrypted, and Facebook clearly states that it will gather no data from communications.
3. Camera: the camera has a 12MP sensor and a wide angle lens which gives it a fairly complete view of the room in which the device is placed. Facebook has written software that allows the picture to digitally zoom to the person speaking, to multiple participants as well as follow the participant as he moves around the room. This gives a better overall user experience as the conversation can be more natural rather than participants being rooted to one spot.
4. AR: Facebook has also added some basic AR functionality to appeal to younger users. This includes the story function where mock-ups of the character speaking can be superimposed upon the face of the person reading the story. This is a nice gimmick, but unlikely to have much impact on the appeal, sales or usage of the device.
5. Third parties: The device seems to be running proprietary software or an Android fork meaning that only a few third-party applications are available at this time. These include Spotify, IHeartRadio, Pandora and a few others but critically no YouTube. A device with a 15.6” screen that doesn’t support YouTube, Vimeo etc or a browser for recipes has some major functionality limitations in my opinion. It looks like Facebook will need to encourage third parties to make their apps available which will be a stretch given the likely low volumes of the device. (Amazon Echo Show is a rounding error when it comes to smart speaker shipment numbers which are themselves still pretty small.)
Of all the products that Facebook has rushed to market, this is not one of them, as this has been in the pipeline for at least 2 years. Hence, I think that this has been well thought through and thoroughly tested, meaning that it should not suffer from the kind of mistakes that Facebook has made on other products.
The price of the two devices is not excessive meaning that Facebook will not be making much (if any) money from hardware but instead, intends to use these devices to drive engagement and loyalty to its fledgling ecosystem.
What Facebook should also have included is interoperability with WhatsApp voice and video calling, but there is no reason why this cannot be added later with a software update. I think that this would significantly increase the appeal of the device and now that the founders of WhatsApp have left, there is no reason why this cannot be done. If Facebook was also to enable calling between Messenger and WhatsApp, the increase in utility would be much greater than just putting the two networks together.
This is something I will be looking for in future software updates – it would serve as a good sign that Facebook is really evolving to become a proper ecosystem rather than a collection of apps.
However, the short-term looks pretty bleak with slowing growth and a 1000bp decline in operating margins on the cards. Furthermore, Facebook needs to lick its AI into shape, which I have long been of the opinion is at the root of most of its problems.
Once all of this is done, then I think that there is scope for a return to steady growth and much better profitability. It is then that I would look to be involved with Facebook once again, not before.
This article was originally published at RadioFreeMobile