There were a lot of people dismissing this product outright because of vague allusions to privacy. I think that tone is pretty lazy. I don’t think anyone in the tech industry would argue that Facebook is an angel of customer data, but upmost privacy is just one tenet of modern technology. Millions, billions, of people use Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the rest. Passing data to companies in exchange for services is a reality that people accept implicitly, and even if you tell them, few care enough to quit. When it comes down to it, people don’t care.
When a normal person sees a Portal, I don’t think they are going to turn a blind eye to it because of the existential fears of personal data exploitation. There are a handful of reasons why this product is going to fail in the market, but I don’t see privacy worries as a legitimate death-on-arrival poison.
I don’t like the trend of glossing over announcements from companies not called Apple, because they all suck at protecting customer privacy. I respect Apple’s privacy commitments at roughly the same level that I respect their environmental achievements. Both are good things to do, but when it comes down to it, the features and functionality is what truly matters in whether I consider a product as ‘good’.
The key marketing point that Facebook is pushing here is video calls, through Messenger. I don’t get it. It just seems so much easier to talk on something that you can hold in your hand — be it a phone, tablet, or laptop in your lap — that you can freely move around with. When I’m on the phone at home, I almost always end up walking around during the course of the conversation. Phones let you angle the camera just how you like to and you can flip the camera around in a pinch to show what you are seeing (iOS 12 FaceTime redesign notwithstanding). The Portal is fixed in place with a single lens. The camera intelligently pans and zooms so you can walk around a room and have it follow you, but what if your kid on the floor starts doing something cute, or you have to rush upstairs? The form factor is inherently limiting.
Facebook is also being pretty stubborn out of the gate with reigning in the software potential of the Portal. You don’t have an app store, so you can only use apps that Facebook partners with, and Alexa is limited in some ways too. You can only do video messages with Messenger, you can’t dictate texts. There’s no YouTube or Netflix. There’s simply not that much to show on its screen. The HomePod is similarly limited and clearly hasn’t set the world on fire. Nevertheless, the HomePod’s core feature — playing Apple Music and sounding good — is far more compelling than the Portal’s video chat offering.
The biggest blocker is just the aesthetics of the object itself. The ‘small’ 10-inch model looks like a checkout kiosk; the Echo Show and the newly-announced Google Home Hub have the same problem. The big 15-inch one is subjectively ugly and objectively big. It is really hard to find a place in your lounge or kitchen where you can put a 15-inch screen on a pedestal, that isn’t in the way but also close enough to actually be able to use the screen and have the camera pointed in the right direction.
Screen-less smart speakers are much more flexible in that regard, as they do not demand line-of-sight human attention. In contrast, an Echo cylinder or HomePod can be placed out of the way on a cabinet or shelf and it is fine. I love visual user interfaces but the intrusiveness of these smart screen devices is a huge barrier to adoption.
For a while now, I have had vague ideas about a smart screen product that can hang on the wall, like a tall mirror or maybe a wall clock. Imagine an Apple Watch that hangs on the wall; because it wouldn’t need to show so much text, it could even be round. I wish Amazon or someone would explore a product like that. Amazon have recently announced an Echo-branded wall clock but it’s not a smart screen; it’s a standard clock with some LEDs around the dial.