Portal, Facebook’s device for making video calls that doubles as a digital picture frame, has had a strange run.
Launched in the wake of multiple policy scandals that rocked the company, the device has gone from being treated suspiciously by critics to being more widely adopted by people desperate to communicate with other humans during pandemic-induced isolation.
Now, Facebook has announced a move that could make the Portal more palatable to those still reluctant to put a Facebook-owned camera in their home. The company is adding support for additional videoconferencing services popular in the corporate world. Zoom is the big one, but Webex, BlueJeans, and GoToMeeting are also coming to the Portal.
Previously, video chat on the Portal has been limited to Facebook-owned services: Messenger, WhatsApp, and Workplace (Facebook’s business-oriented social platform). The various new apps will be added throughout September on the Portal, Portal+, and Portal Mini, but won’t come to Portal TV until later in 2020.
In a not-at-all-odd bit of timing, Google and Amazon also announced Wednesday that they are adding support for Zoom to their Assistant-enabled smart displays and Alexa-enabled Echo displays, respectively. Owners of the countertop touchscreen devices—roughly analogous to the Portal—will be able to use them for Zoom calls later this year by syncing the devices with whatever calendar they use for Zoom meetings.
We Need to Talk
By adding a few other business-friendly features in this update—Portal users can log into Workplace directly without linking their personal Facebook account, and Portal’s touchscreen will now work with the virtual whiteboards in Zoom and BlueJeans—Facebook is keen to position Portal as a tool for the age of widespread remote work.
“It’s a trend that has only accelerated and isn’t going anywhere,” says Micah Collins, director of product management at Facebook. “We definitely want to keep investing in making sure Portal is a great tool for remote workers, and we think by offering more choice on how we can call and connect, we’re really making big inroads there.”
Even with third-party videoconferencing support, Portal isn’t exactly platform-agnostic. Users don’t need a Facebook account to use Portal, but they will still have to log in with WhatsApp or Workplace—platforms that are both owned by Facebook. (Likewise, smart displays from Google and Amazon require an account on the companies’ platforms.) Additional Portal features, like its voice assistant and the Story Time feature for reading virtual kids’ books, are only available when logged into Facebook.
The Portal is still a bit of a hard sell for tech-savvy consumers, especially since any move Facebook makes conjures up concerns about privacy. Yes, many people already let Facebook siphon data from their phones and computers all the time, but taking the extra step of plopping a big Facebook-powered eyeball into their home can feel a tad Orweillian.
“In this ecosystem right now, Facebook is under a lot of scrutiny, so they kind of have a lot of pressure on them to do the right thing,” says Jennifer King, director of the Consumer Privacy Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “But given what we’ve seen both Amazon and Google do with voice data so far, that leads me to be concerned about any of these devices you place in the home.”
Facebook has made moves to change its tune on privacy, but the suspicion directed at the company hasn’t abated. Zoom may have had privacy issues of its own, but it makes sense that Facebook would try to make the Portal more appealing by inviting a familiar and popular app into the fold. In fact, Collins posits that the Portal actually makes those other videostreaming services more secure, as the Portal itself has built-in switches that let you physically turn off the camera and microphone, whereas many laptops, phones, and tablets do not. (The validity of this argument really depends on how much you trust Facebook, and how carefully you police the cameras and microphones on all of your connected devices.)
“This is a similar conversation to be had with microphones five years ago, when a number of far-field voice-activated products were entering the home,” Collins says. “I think this kind of discomfort around the technology—we’re going to start having different conversations about it.”
He’s got a point. Portal may be a newer device, but its approach is hardly novel. For the time being, at least, Portal isn’t crossing any privacy boundaries that haven’t already been punctured by Facebook’s core service.
“They already know a lot about you,” King says. “If you’re using their service enough to justify having a Portal, I’m not sure there’s anything more extensive they may potentially learn about you from that experience that they don’t already know.”
UPDATE: August 19, 12:30 pm EDT. This story was updated to add details about Zoom’s integration on the Google and Amazon smart display platforms.
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