IMAGE: Facebook

Do you trust Facebook enough to make all your video calls through it?

Facebook has announced the launch of Facebook Portal, a two-size screen for making video calls using a camera that follows callers’ movements, reflecting the company’s mission to “bring the world closer together.” This is not the first venture into designing and manufacturing hardware for the company that acquired Oculus VR in March 2014 and has evolved the design of its virtual reality monitor, but it’s expanding the concept of “relationships between people” that goes beyond the usual use of computers or smartphones, taking Facebook into an area that is tangentially related, but is a completely different business and subject to other rules.

In this new environment, Facebook will encounter devices from the range of so-called smart screens, such as Amazon (Echo Spot and Echo Show) or Google’s, which have struggled, using different strategies, to secure a hold in the growing home assistant market, although devices with a camera and a screen still represent a small percentage of the total in a category that is still more about voice than image. Facebook Portal has a horizontal 10-inch screen and costs $199, while Portal+ has a 15-inch vertical screen and costs $349. The idea of positioning these types of devices as video communication tools, integrating them with Amazon’s Alexa while freeing users so that they can move around while talking could get make Facebook, based on an aggressive strategy an interesting competitor in a segment with considerable growth potential.

The problem, however, may lie in attitudes toward Facebook by a large number of users. The company continues to attract new users, but that growth hides a change in the users’ relationship with it, especially in mature markets, which has led some observers to announce the end of social media as we know it, the victim of a lack of trust. For many people, Facebook is either being used for political manipulation or its security is vulnerable to hacking or it is simply an unreliable partner because it sells our data to third parties. Seen in this light, putting a device in one’s living room with a camera capable of following our movements could be seen as a threat to privacy from a company that for many people has broken its promises and had to apologize too often. Seemingly aware of these concerns, Portal’s camera can easily be disconnects, there is a cover for the lens and no tracking data is sent to the company. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen.

Then there is the question of whether anybody is that interested in paying for this kind of video call. While many pundits insist most communication in the future will be through video, given that this is already possible, there hasn’t been mass take up of the feature on apps like Facetime or WhatsApp. Is this concept capable of generating solid demand, particularly given Facebook’s reputation? Are we going to grant Facebook pride of place in our living rooms and carry out all our calls through it?

Entering the hardware market and anchoring users to a specific device makes strategic sense for Facebook, but bringing people round to the idea will be hard work.


(En español, aquí)