New Facebook Portal Uses Alexa as Trojan Horse Into Homes

In January, news site Cheddar reported that Facebook was working on a voice-only home hub named ‘Portal.’ It was right, and now Facebook Portal is here.

What Cheddar got wrong was the nature of Portal. It’s not voice-only; there’s a screen that makes the device look like a docked tablet. It comes in two varieties: A landscape-oriented tablet (10-inch, 720p resolution) with a large camera up-top and speaker grille running the length of the bottom, and the “Portal Plus” with a 15-inch, 1080p screen, capable of swiveling between landscape and portrait modes.

Facebook Portal is made for video chatting, and has some unique camera features. The so-called ‘Smart Camera’ can keep you in frame if you move around (it has a 140-degree field of view); it also automatically widens its scope if more people enter the room.

In January, we noted how Facebook killed off its own digital assistant, M. As a result, Portal relies on Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant. As the fine-print notes: “Alexa features and functionality may differ slightly on Portal and Amazon devices,” which leads us to believe Facebook has skinned its Alexa experience. We also don’t know if all Alexa skills will run on Facebook Portal.

And there are privacy implications. Facebook wisely created a ‘Privacy’ page on the Portal website, but it fails to address whether or not using Alexa via Portal will allow Facebook to gather additional info on you. Amazon uses its Privacy Notice as a catch-all for its various services, including Alexa, and states that it does share your details in various instances (none of which explicitly exclude an Alexa partner like Facebook).

Facebook Portal Home Hub Alexa Dice

Alexa may also be exactly the play Facebook needs for the home. The Portal website spends a lot of time explaining that video calls are not recorded, and the camera isn’t always on (and can be disabled), but glosses over Alexa (which is buried deep in the landing page). So far, it seems to rely on core Alexa knowledge and skills, such as parroting the weather report or creating a to-do list; Facebook says you can control your home via Alexa on Portal, too.

The home-hub market is hot, and every major tech company is involved. Facebook Portal looks like nice hardware, but it’s a soft entry into the market for the social media juggernaut. Its reliance on voice and video chats makes its operating system far more like Facebook-Messenger-as-a-platform than some bespoke React-filled OS. Alexa is Facebook’s way to at least call Portal a smart home hub; video chatting alone likely wouldn’t entice users.

But it’s the exact wrong time to release Portal, too. Though a shallow dig into the Portal page shows Facebook has made its camera and chatting system secure, a vast number of people just plain don’t trust Zuckerberg and company, especially in the wake of Facebook’s high-profile data breaches.

In fact, Portal may be a good product for the home at exactly the worst time imaginable. It’s hard to say how it will be received by users, but tech pros don’t need to concern themselves. We can’t find an avenue for building with Portal, and it’s unclear whether or not Alexa skills are even available via the device.

In almost every way, Google Home, Alexa via proper Amazon hardware, and HomePod are still a better bet for users and developers.