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Facebook launches Portal, haunted by trust issues

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Facebook is a powerful phone book, but it long ago opted against building a phone. There were good re
 
October 8 · Issue #222 · View online
The Interface
Facebook is a powerful phone book, but it long ago opted against building a phone. There were good reasons not to build a phone. One, the risk of failure was high — at the time, Windows Phone was sputtering, and the iOS/Android duopoly looked increasingly impenetrable. Two, it would have put Facebook in direct competition with Google and Apple, risking an ugly conflict with the two biggest platforms on which the company depends.
But in search of new growth, Facebook ultimately came back around to the idea of building its own hardware — and, in a way, back to the phone. First came the Oculus acquisition, which turned Facebook into a manufacturer of virtual-reality gear. And today comes Portal, a video phone that runs on Facebook Messenger. Here’s my colleague Jake Kastrenakes with the gist:
The Portal is designed to simplify video chatting by having a wide-angle camera capable of identifying your body, then tracking you as you move around the room. It makes for more comfortable chatting than holding a phone up to your face for extended periods of time. Facebook says the Portal is designed to create the sense that you’re sharing one big room with the people you’re talking to, and considers the chats you have on the device an augmented reality experience.
With the Portal, you don’t have to hold, aim, or direct anything. Once a chat starts up, the device’s camera will automatically find people in the room and keep them in frame. If multiple people are in a room, the camera will use a wide angle to fit them all. If there’s only one person, the camera will zoom in to focus on their face. Facebook says this feature makes video chatting more natural, since you can just talk without worrying about camera angles.
I played around with Portal last week during a meeting with the Facebook team behind the device. As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine how I would feel about the device if I didn’t know who made it. The design struck me as goofy but functional: similar to the Echo Show, in its smaller version, and in the larger version, like a Square point-of-sale device. As a video phone, it worked as advertised. The marquee feature is a kind of dynamic cropping that constantly adjusts the angle depending on how many people are in the frame and where they’re moving. The company says this is a step toward VR-style “presence,” which feels like an oversell. But it seems useful.
The other striking thing about Portal is how little it does. Aside from making video calls, it can play music through Spotify or Pandora, play videos through Facebook Watch, or cycle through photos in an album of your choosing. Amazon’s Alexa is integrated into the hardware, and so it can do Alexa things. And that’s about it.
Single-purpose tools can be powerful in their simplicity — hammers, say, portable Bluetooth speakers. But if you’ve ever walked through Sur La Table and marveled at the strawberry corers and avocado slicers, you know they can also be a little ridiculous. If you can afford a $200 or $350 Portal, you probably already have a phone, a tablet, and laptop — and maybe an Echo or two — all of which can do everything the Portal does, and more. 
The reason to buy one is because you make video calls so much that you’re willing to invest in dedicated hardware, and give it a permanent spot in your home. I have no idea how many people feel that way, but as a device that serves that particular thesis, the Portal seems worthy enough. As version 1.0 hardware from a company with little manufacturing experience, it’s a solid effort. The question is whether it’s a hammer or an avocado slicer — and at launch, it looks more like the latter to me.
Anyway, that’s how I’d review the Portal if I didn’t know who made it. But we do know who made it, and rarely in the history of gadget reviewing have I seen so many independent journalists come to identical conclusions about a device. The issue, of course, is trust. And the press corps doesn’t trust Facebook to put an always-on microphone and camera in their home. Even if it comes with a plastic camera cover and an off-switch for the microphone.
Here’s a sampling of the day’s zingers:
  • “The Portal is a sleek new video camera and screen that makes chats with family and friends look great. It has just one problem: It was made by Mark Zuckerberg.” — Geoffrey Fowler, Washington Post.
  • “‘Hell, no!’ That’s the blunt response I got from a colleague moments after I started to tell her about Facebook’s Portal and Portal+, the new voice-controlled, video-calling devices with Amazon’s Alexa that Facebook starts taking pre-orders for on Monday.” — Ed Baig, USA Today.
  • “Facebook has proven to be a net negative for humanity. But if you’re one of the many people who doesn’t give a shit about anything, the Portal might be for you.” — Matt Novak, Gizmodo.
There are a lot more like that.
Perhaps demand will be stronger than reporters are predicting. Still, the fact remains that this is a device whose launch was delayed in the midst of one privacy scandal (Cambridge Analytica) only to arrive in the midst of another one. I’m not sure what a good time to launch Portal would have been this year. But there haven’t been many worse ones.

Democracy
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Facebook Will Set Up An Election Task Force In India Ahead Of Major Elections
WhatsApp, Reliance Jio launches campaign for responsible app use on JioPhones
Brazil Election Results: Far-Right Candidate Heads to Runoff After Missing Outright Win
Why we’re losing the battle against fake news
Elsewhere
Viral video of Russian woman bleaching manspreaders was anti-feminist propaganda
Facebook poaches leaders of Refdash interview prep to work on Jobs
Launches
Facebook announces Portal, an Echo Show rival focused on video chat
Facebook Messenger internally tests voice commands for chat, calls
Camera Effects Platform is now Spark AR
Takes
Google Privacy Glitch: No, We Did Not Consent to This
Did Facebook Learn Anything From the Cambridge Analytica Debacle?
And finally ...
Today for the first time I put together The Interface during lunchtime on a reporting trip to LA. I want to thank El Torito for the guest wifi and the grilled mahi mahi tacos. Both were great.
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and the number of Portals you will be buying for friends and family this holiday season. casey@theverge.com.
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