Facebook debuts its voice-activated device Portal, with no ads (for now)

Platform is not surprisingly stressing its privacy features

Published On
Oct 10, 2018

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Facebook is promising its listening and video-capturing device for homes called Portal will safeguard consumer privacy, and that there won't be any ads on it -- for now.

Facebook has been working for months on the voice-activated device, its answer to Google Home and Amazon Echo, but it reportedly got cold feet about the timing of its release, since it was busy responding to data abuses revealed in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica. The data affair uncovered problems with how Facebook allows third parties to access data it's gathered on its 2.2 billion monthly users.

Now, Facebook is trying to get consumers to trust the company with a device that contains its own hardware, microphone and camera in the middle of their homes, so it's no wonder Facebook is stressing the privacy features, such as ways to disable the mic and cover the camera. The company says it also won't store audio and video on its servers.

"Facebook doesn't listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls," the company said in its announcement on Monday. "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."

Portal--and Portal Plus--will cost $200 and $350, respectively. Facebook built the device using Amazon's Alexa to help respond to queries from consumers, because the social network does not have its own such virtual assistant. Google and Apple each have their own.

Facebook said Portal won't have ads, but that was more a matter of perspective. Third-party apps like Spotify can run ads. Portal will also run Facebook Watch shows, which are the programs from premium publishers that run on the social network. However, a Facebook representative said Facebook won't deliver ads to the device even through Watch.

Facebook declined to elaborate further on whether Watch or other Facebook apps would run ads in the future.

As for any other ad intrusions into the main device, Facebook just said that there are none "yet."

"Portal does not have Facebook ads at this time," Facebook said on its new website for the device. "Some third-party services on Portal (e.g., music partners) may embed ads in their content in the same way they do when providing their services on other devices."

Facebook is mostly marketing Portal devices as communication tools to talk with family and friends by video. The screens are powered by artificial intelligence that can follow a person as they move around the room. While some might find that creepy, Facebook says the goal is to show people they don't have to be stuck in front of the screen to communicate.

The Portal Plus device can also swivel into vertical orientation, similar to how people are used to viewing and video-calling through their phones. The plus model is 15 inches and the smaller one is 10 inches but stays in landscape mode. The larger vertical screen opens possibilities for bolder video and commercials that brands have already gotten used to producing for mobile apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

It remains to be seen if Portal can be a commercial success, because Facebook has had trouble with hardware for years. Facebook phones have been flops and its Oculus virtual reality devices have undersold competitors.

Portal cost the same as Google Screen, but is more expensive than Amazon Show.

The privacy concerns could be a major hurdle for Facebook, because there already are consumer misconceptions about the company listening to conversations through phones to target ads. It's an urban legend that Facebook has repeatedly refuted but it continues to pop up in the consumer imagination.

That's clearly why Facebook is trying to get ahead of similar concerns around its screens for the home. The company says the camera only runs locally, it does not connect to its servers and the only recordings it keeps are voice commands that people can see in their activity logs and can be deleted.

There are only a handful of third-party partners, so far, including Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Newsy, Food Network and Amazon Alexa. And of course, Facebook Watch.


Oct 10, 2018

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