ProBeat: Facebook’s Portal is dead on arrival

by Oct 23, 20180 comments

Facebook last week unveiled its Portal and Portal+ smart speakers that can follow you around at home while you’re on a video call. While that alone was a shit product idea from a company like Facebook, that shit has been hitting the fan ever since. The devices are expected to ship in early November, but they will inevitably sink.

I want to be crystal clear: This isn’t commentary on strategy or business model. (For that, check out Ben Thompson’s excellent evaluation that concludes Facebook is the least well-positioned in terms of smart speakers compared to Amazon, Apple, and Google.) This also isn’t a hardware or software critique. I haven’t tried the Portal myself — nobody has — and reviews aren’t expected for another couple weeks. And this has nothing to do with the failed Facebook phone. I don’t believe Facebook knows how to build physical products — it’s an internet company that excelled at offering free services backed by advertising — but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

This is about optics.

You see, Facebook already delayed Portal because of its privacy catastrophes this year vis-à-vis the Cambridge Analytica train wreck. Portal was expected to be announced in May, but the company instead unveiled it in October.

Facebook didn’t even wait half a year. (To be fair, that’s much longer than the average American’s attention span.)

And it probably would have worked. But you see, it’s hard to launch a privacy-controversial product when you’re constantly dealing with privacy controversies.

Ten days before Portal was announced, Facebook disclosed the biggest data breach in the social network’s history. But, hey, maybe everyone will forget?

Four days after Portal was announced, Facebook shared new details of the hack, confirming that personal data had been stolen: data such as name, gender, email, phone number, language, relationship status, device types used to access Facebook, places checked into, and recent searches.

If Cambridge Analytica was enough to delay Portal’s debut, this hack should have shelved the product permanently. I could have written this column last week.

But you see, we’re not done yet.

Eight days after Portal was announced, Facebook confirmed it will indeed use Portal to learn more about you so it can target you with ads. The joke that Portal is just another device that Facebook can use to spy on you is no longer a joke.

“Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e., usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices,” a Facebook spokesperson told Recode. “We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads.”

To add insult to injury, Facebook’s product page for Portal calls it “private by design.”

I would call this the final nail in the coffin, but there are plenty of days left between now and Portal’s launch flop.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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