Thoughts about Portal (and Smart Displays in general)

Andreas Stegmann
Oct 9, 2018 · 4 min read
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The first Facebook product that isn’t blue, right?

First things first: Portal is the perfect name for a Smart Display.

But is there even one review that doesn't focus on the privacy implications? I get it, Facebook is todays scapegoat for everything bad about the Valley, but can we please talk about product? Compared to others, Facebook at least made it easy to create some kind of private space.

Having said that, I wonder why

  • They haven’t foreseen this backslash and postponed the launch (it’s a device that isn’t that time-critical).
  • They used the Facebook brand. (It wouldn’t be the first conglomerate that uses brands not as they fit the use case, but as they fit the CEOs ego.)

If you tell me you can do this with your smartphone you are missing the point. You could use your swiss army knife for every meal as well, but somehow cutlery managed to survive. Having a dedicated device with only one Job-to-be-done can be very powerful. Have you tried to make a hands-free video call? As a fresh parent I can certainly see the appeal.

While it’s true that the device category is already established, …

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…and Facebook spent a lot of effort to get the details right. Look at the features:

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Again, this is targeted to families that are always busy with something else, but don’t want to stop their current task just to take a quick chat. Chats or calls taken on such a device are not necessarily competing against Skype on my computer or WhatsApp on my smartphone — they are competing against non-consumption. As a separate device, video calls are a lot less friction.

As I said, I’m bullish on Smart Displays.

Not even mentioning Use Case №2, the (remote) Office:

I could imagine a product alteration, where I put a camera on top of the living room TV (where I already have one thanks to Nintendo), and video calls get displayed on the big screen, further reducing the hardware costs. It would have to be PiP, otherwise you couldn’t watch something together. Smart TVs already have the smart assistant integrated.

Speaking of Alexa: Is this really the first time that one of the big FAANG players uses a customer-facing service of a direct competitor? Kudos to Amazon to establish this kind of trust with their Alexa everywhere-strategy.

Is this effort DoA, because of the negative press? I would guess no, Cambridge Analytica and the last data breach showed that the average user still does not care about privacy. (Rendering regulatory efforts like GDPR or this one obsolete.)

Would I bet money on Portal’s success? No way, Facebook’s track record isn’t exactly great when it comes to hardware. I’m very skeptical about their ability to sell a meaningful amount.

You could replace “Glasses” with “Display” and this statement rings still true:

So far it seems that you either need

  • Strong customer pull (Apple)
  • Strong vendor push (Amazon, Samsung)

to establish a category.

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Just look at my Amazon home page.

Note that Facebook or Google also would have the eyeballs to promote their hardware, but because this would risk their core business they (wisely) choose not to.

Therefore it seems that Amazon still is best positioned to dominate the home. The next gen echo show could copy one or two hardware features from Portal. We’ll see if Facebook then shows resilience.

But the category will survive. This certainly won’t be the last Smart Display.

Further reading:

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