Tech giants in three-cornered fight to conquer your home

October 10, 2018 13:01
New devices for your living room: (clockwise, from left) Facebook's Portal, Google's Home Hub and Amazon's Echo Show. Photo: Reuters/AFP/Amazon

Facebook has launched a smart speaker that facilitates video calls at home, but it seems it has chosen the wrong time to bring such a product to the market.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal early this year, in which the political consulting firm mined the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent, users of the social network have become very much concerned about their privacy, worrying that their personal information and communications could fall into the wrong hands.

Their fears were compounded when Facebook revealed another security breach in late September, when hackers were able to enter its computer network, exposing the personal information of nearly 50 million users.

Now here comes Facebook introducing a product that may reignite privacy fears as it is a hardware that will be physically present in the user's living room, kitchen or bedroom.

The new product, called Portal, has been described by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a device that makes video calling feel a lot more like hanging out.

Portal has a smart camera and a smart sound technology that could focus on whoever is talking, even if he or she is walking around the room. The artificial intelligence-powered, hands-free, voice-controlled device works with Alexa, the virtual assistant developed by Amazon.

The product can be used to call anyone on Facebook Messenger, allowing users to connect with family and friends, even those who don't have Portal.

Portal has two models, a 10-inch unit and a 15-inch one, which can be used with ease because  it doesn't have to be held.

The screen of the device can also be used for browsing Facebook photos and videos, as well as listening to live-stream music from Spotify and other providers.

The device will only be available initially in the United States, but users can connect to anyone with a Messenger account anywhere in the world.

Portal, of course, is not quite an original device. Prior to its launch, Amazon has introduced a similar product called Echo Show, whose latest version features premium sound quality and outstanding screen performance.

Portal, however, is cheaper, costing only US$199 each, while the new Echo Show, which has a 10.1-inch screen and a speaker at the bottom of the device, costs US$229.

Facebook also employs a unique technology that allows the device to follow the user as he or she moves about the room.

Portal's smart camera can detect the number of persons in the room and automatically adjust itself to include everyone inside the frame.

Facebook is aware of the user's privacy concerns. With such a device at home, some users may worry that their conversations at home may be recorded and passed on to third parties without their consent.

Zuckerberg has addressed such concerns, and sought to reassure consumers. He said: “Privacy is built deeply into Portal. The camera has a physical cover and there's a built-in hardware button to turn off the camera and microphone. Facebook doesn't listen to, view, or keep the contents of your calls in any way. All the calls are always completely private.”

Facebook, of course, knows only too well that such concerns could affect its business, not to mention its share price, as shown by the events following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw Zuckerberg himself attending and being grilled by US senators in lengthy congressional hearings.

Unfortunately, such data breaches have reduced the people's trust in the social network over the past few months. In a survey conducted in September, more than a quarter of Facebook users interviewed in the United States said they removed their accounts and related apps from their devices to express their dismay over perceived privacy violations.

Against this backdrop, it would be interesting to see whether Portal could make a dent in the market.

Many consumers are likely to entertain doubts about allowing a physical device to enter the privacy of their homes, especially a device with a technology that can follow them around, watch and listen to them.

On Tuesday Google also unveiled a smart device called Home Hub, which features an app that  functions like a universal remote, connecting all devices to the cloud.

The product is also equipped with a 10-inch screen and voice recognition digital assistant, and supports high-definition video and music streaming services. Surprisingly, Home Hub does not have a camera, thus it cannot be used to make a video call.

According to Google, Home Hub aims is to create “a more helpful, thoughtful home”. The device enables you to read the digital assistant's responses, instead of hearing them.

Google also has revamped services like Search, YouTube, Maps, Calendar, and Photos for Home Hub, adding voice control and information at a glance.

Indeed, it will be a three-cornered fight as Facebook's Portal enters the arena and battle it out with Amazon's Echo Show and Google's Home Hub.

How about you? Would you allow Facebook's new device into the privacy of your home?

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EJ Insight writer