Facebook Portal to Challenge Echo Show: Report

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Facebook Portal said to challenge the Amazon Echo – but why?

Facebook is set to enter the home hub market, according to a new report.

News site Cheddar is reporting that Facebook will introduce ‘Portal’ this Spring, likely during or just ahead of its annual F8 conference. Designed for the home, Portal is akin to the Amazon Echo Show, which has a screen but is meant primarily for voice use.

Cheddar reports Portal is voice-only, so it’s not clear if the screen will support capacitive touch or not. ‘Portal’ was first revealed by Bloomberg during last year’s F8 soiree.

Portal is meant for video communication with family and friends. It is said to have a wide-angle lens that identifies people using facial recognition. While the report doesn’t detail as such, it sounds as if Facebook’s home hub can identify multiple on-screen faces. It also links identified faces to their Facebook accounts.

So it sounds as if users will be able to chat with people, then have information populate on-screen. Facebook began testing facial recognition in photos in 2016, and offers methods for users to opt-out of the service. Portal is said to ship later this year, and retail for $499.

Why, Facebook?

Why is Facebook Portal Even a Thing?

Save for the details above, there’s not much else to know about Portal. And that’s the problem.

We can’t say what operating system it will run. It’s entirely possible Facebook has some sort of bespoke React-laden OS for Portal; it’s just as likely this thing will run Android.

There’s also no stated allure for such a device beyond video chat (which we assume will filter through Messenger). For $499, it has to do more. Even Apple’s oh-so-expensive HomePod is $150 less, and it’s hard to imagine Facebook has outdone Apple when it comes to audio. Similarly, the social network has no music streaming system to glom onto; is a Spotify partnership in the offing?

Portal also has no digital assistant to speak of. Facebook recently retired the human-assisted ‘M,’ its Messenger-based artificial intelligence (A.I.) bot. (Although Facebook supposedly “learned a lot,” it nonetheless decided to shelve the technology rather than extend it beyond its very limited beta.) Portal may serve as a conduit for a new A.I. assistant (which we assume may be announced at F8), which could very well be an A.I.-only version of M.

Currently, Facebook’s developer platform is useful for ads and analytics (the company wants users’ information; color us shocked), but there’s no delivery method for proper apps or services; that likewise limits a home-centric device’s utility. Messenger has a bot-building tool, but it’s still as simplistic as when it was introduced at F8 in 2016. Facebook has some AR tooling, which we’re sure will come into play for Portal, but masks and photo frames only carry you so far.

Independent statistics suggest Messenger has about 1.2 billion monthly active users. In 2017, Facebook said Messenger had 17 billion real-time video chats, a 100 percent increase over 2016 (the average group chat includes 10 people, underscoring why account discovery might be important when it comes to Portal).

But what does something like Portal potentially offer developers? The company’s existing developer tools are quite restrictive, and stiff competition likely makes Portal another Facebook hardware flop (Cheddar also reports CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care if Portal is a loss-leader). Amazon and Google have commandeered the voice-first digital assistant market, and Apple’s HomePod will give Siri a boost. There’s also the connected home to consider, yet another place Facebook has no foothold.

It’s hard to argue that developers should get too worked up over Portal. While the voice-first home hub market is heating up, video chats alone won’t encourage customers to choose this device over others on the market. Without a plethora of exceedingly good tools for developers, Facebook may be smarter to simply shelve Portal.