Facebook Portal's timing could not be worse - here's why

Why do I feel like we're being tested?

Facebook's Portal is terribly timed
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Today I looked up the definition of audacity and there, dear reader, I saw a photo of Mark Zuckerberg, a middle finger in the air, mouthing something to the effect of “Swivel on it”.

It checks out: Facebook, a company that’s spent an unhealthy portion of the year under fire for failing to protect user privacy, just told us that it wants to put a camera inside our homes.

Read this: How smart speakers are helping people who live alone

It sounds like a headline on The Onion; it’s not. Facebook Portal is a smart speaker and display that lets you video chat with friends and family. Its camera follows you around the room, keeping you in frame as you talk; it has has some pretty cool tech, but its most impressive feature is its spectacularly bad timing.

It's been reported that the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which rocked the social network earlier this year, delayed the launch of Portal. But apparently September’s breach, which left 50 million accounts exposed - the one that happened, like, a few days ago - is less an issue, it seems. Maybe Facebook realized there was never going to be a good time to launch Portal - so why not just pull the trigger?

To its credit, the company has stuck a camera shutter on the speaker, so at least it knows you don’t trust it. And Facebook says the AI runs locally on the device, not on Facebook’s servers, only heading to the servers when you give the “Hey Portal” command.

I’m glad Facebook is pointing all this out, but I can’t say it changes a lot. Facebook is an advertising company - user data is its bread and butter - and though, yes, it will make money from Portal hardware, that’s certainly not the long term strategy. Speaking of which, who’s to say how Telescreen Portal will change over time?

Facebook Portal feels like a test of

Does it look cool? Yeah, I dig the design. Am I going to stick one in my home? Hell no.

That might make me sound hypocritical: For a while I had Amazon's Echo Show in my kitchen, and currently have a couple of smart speakers listening to me as I type this. And I’ll give you this: the same day that Facebook revealed the Portal, an explosive story laid bare Google’s hush-hushing of a data-exposing bug, which has given me plenty of pause about that company too. Are Apple and Amazon the remaining "good guys"?

The Portal problem is compounded by the fact people seem to be trying to move away from Facebook right now, not closer to it. While Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are proving to be increasingly useful, where does Facebook sit? What does Facebook mean to people in 2018?

But here’s what even more baffling about Portal: it’s so barren in features. Facebook browsing, Instagram, WhatsApp - nowhere to be found. It’s all in on video chatting and, at least to start, that’s all you’re going to be able to do with it.

If Facebook had been more cunning it would have launched Portal as a WhatsApp product. Or maybe I’m just being overdramatic about all of this. Maybe people won’t care as much as I think they will. Sonos CEO Patrick Spence believes Portal will be the litmus test on privacy. I’m starting to think he might be right.

TAGGED    smart speakers

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