Facebook is turning Portal into a screen for Zoom calls

When the COVID-19 pandemic made social distancing into the sudden norm, a bunch of not-especially-high-profile technology products entered the spotlight. Among them was Facebook’s Portal, a home smart screen for video calls that reportedly saw a sales spike as people looked for new ways to stay in touch with remote friends and family.

Now Facebook is adding capabilities that will take Portal further into work-from-home territory. Portal devices will be able to connect to four major videoconferencing services: Zoom, Webex, BlueJeans, and GoToMeeting. (That covers a a sizable percentage of the market, though Google Meet and Microsoft Teams aren’t on the list.) That’s on top of the video-calling features that are part of Facebook’s Workplace business collaboration service.

The new functionality is due to arrive in September on the $129 Portal Mini, $179 Portal, and $279 Portal+. Portal TV—a stand-alone camera that works with any TV—will add support at a later date.

Webex on Facebook’s Portal. [Photo courtesy of Facebook]

Why put video calls on a separate screen instead of just using the laptop or desktop PC you’re probably already using in your home office? Facebook director of product management Micah Collins says that putting a Portal on your desk frees up your computing device for taking notes, viewing documents, and other tasks: “These Portal devices are showing up as being really useful and sticky for people as a second screen to compartmentalize what is a fairly taxing use case on a laptop.” In addition, videoconferencing on Portal takes advantage of Facebook “Smart Camera” AI that tracks people to keep them artfully framed, potentially making for a slicker experience than the notoriously crummy webcams on some laptops.

My colleague Jared Newman recently wrote about a dedicated 27″ screen for Zoom calls and urged people not to buy it. Most of his reservations about that device—including its $599 price tag and the fact it works only with Zoom—aren’t applicable to Portal, which offers smaller screens at more affordable prices and isn’t hard-wired to a single videoconferencing service.

Still, there’s one major fact about Portal that will give many people pause, maybe even more so in a business context than a personal one: It’s from Facebook. Reviews of the device often praise the hardware and software experience but express unease with the whole idea of buying such a device from a company whose reputation as a guardian of user privacy is so compromised.

At least Facebook is aware that it has an issue here. Privacy, says Collins, “is a critically important part of building trust with your users and trust with your customers. Portal has to be a platform that is private by design.” Portal hardware sports switches to disable the camera and microphone, plus physical camera covers. The Smart Camera AI happens on the device, not on Facebook servers. There’s a screen-lock passcode plus optional service-specific ones for Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Workplace. And Facebook will make it possible to use Portal without having a Facebook account, via a free Workplace login.

Despite the skepticism that tends to dog appraisals of Portal, Facebook is betting that enough potential customers will be comfortable with it as a business tool to help drive further sales. “Since the day we launched it, people wanted to know when we were going to have more work functionality,” says Collins.

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