Facebook enters smart speaker race with video-calling device
Facebook is taking orders for its first consumer electronics devices, the Portal and Portal+, equipped with an artificial intelligence-driven camera and sound technology to allow users to engage in video calls. It will also have Alexa integration for controlling smart home devices, accessing information and navigating other apps.
The Portal, with a 10-inch screen, is priced at $199, and Portal+, with a 15-inch screen that can leverage the AI-based capabilities to pivot and follow users around a room as they are engaged in video calls, is priced at $349. Both are available now for pre-order in the U.S. through Facebook, Amazon and Best Buy, and will ship to buyers next month, Facebook said.
The Portal devices include security functions that allow the user to disable the camera and microphone features with a single tap, and to set a private passcode to keep the screen locked. The camera on the device also comes with a lens cover so that users can block the video capability but still receive incoming calls and notifications while using other voice command functions.
Facebook is one of the last players in the high-tech sector to launch its own line of consumer electronics devices for the home. It's been beaten into that game by Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung and a handful of others.
Much of the coverage around the launch of Facebook's Portal devices likens them to the smart speakers that other companies have launched. Though it does have much in common with those devices, it's clear that Facebook is pitching its Portals primarily as video calling devices. Thanks to an Alexa integration, the Portal devices can also do any of the other things that competing smart speakers can do, such as control smart home devices.
However, the Portals have hurdles to overcome. Video calling took more than 50 years to become an everyday reality, but consumers can now conduct these calls/chats on many different devices. Do they really need another device whose primary value lies in its video chat capability?
Also, while the Portal leverages its video screen to allow users to apply augmented reality emojis and other AR features to their video calls, the screen doesn't do much more than that. It can't be used to watch Netflix or YouTube, though it can stream video from Facebook Watch, the on-demand video service the social media giant launched last year.
Then there's the issue of Facebook introducing a device with a camera that can pivot around a room to follow the user. This launch comes as Facebook continues to face sharp criticism over a recent data breach. As the company's ability to protect users' privacy is being repeatedly questioned, Facebook smartly highlighted how easy it is for users to disable the camera whenever they want.
The Alexa integration gives the Portal devices many similar functions to other smart speakers. It plays into Amazon's strategy to get its virtual assistant technology into as many devices as possible. While Amazon is powering a competitor's device, the Portal competes less with Amazon's entire Echo family than the Echo Show in particular, and even that may be a stretch. (It's worth noting that Amazon is selling the Portal on its website.) All of this make the Facebook Portal seem like more of a threat to other home smart speaker devices, like the Google Home and Apple HomePod, at a time when smart speakers are in almost a quarter of U.S. households but still have potential growth ahead of them. There's still time for big names to make strong moves in this market.