Facebook unveils Portal smart speakers with video calling to battle Amazon and Google

  • Facebook is entering the smart-speaker market with two devices.
  • The Portal and Portal+ place an emphasis on video calls over Messenger.
  • Device preorders are open now, and units will ship early next month.

Facebook on Monday unveiled a pair of smart speakers, complete with cameras and microphones, for your home.

The devices, Portal and Portal+, directly challenge Amazon, Google and Apple in the fast-growing smart-speaker market with a unique approach that will emphasize video calling. It's Facebook's first hardware product outside the Oculus line of virtual-reality devices.

To start a video call, users can say "Hey Portal, call ..." followed by the name of a connection on Facebook's Messenger service.

These calls include entertaining augmented-reality features that can outfit users with cat hats or turn their living rooms into animated night clubs.

Another feature is Smart Camera, which uses artificial intelligence and the devices' cameras to perfectly frame users on video as they move around while on a call.

"Portal+ and Portal really live up to that idea of helping you feel closer and allowing you to spend more quality time with people, even if they live thousands of miles away from you," said Dave Kaufman, marketing lead for Facebook's Portal division.

Besides video calls, the Portal devices can stream music from Spotify, Pandora and Amazon Music and video from Facebook Watch. Not included at launch are services like Apple Music, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu or HBO Now.

The devices come equipped with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant and the many skills available on that service, allowing them to ask questions like "What's the weather?" or "How are my teams doing?"

"The inclusion of Alexa is certainly an interesting move," said Jonathan Collins, director at tech advisory firm ABI Research. "It enables the Facebook devices to piggy-back on the back of Alexa success."

The company is taking preorders for the devices now and will begin shipping them early next month. The Portal, which features a 10-inch screen, is available for $199 while the Portal+, which has a long, 15.6-inch screen, is priced at $349.

The smart-speaker market is estimated to be worth $6.7 billion in 2018 and forecast to grow to $23.5 billion by 2023, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. Amazon currently leads with 34.2 percent of the market, followed by Google with 22 percent, according to first half 2018 figures provided by the firm.

Finding a foothold in that market could prove difficult for Facebook, which is entering much later than its rivals. Another challenge will be convincing users that they can trust the company with hardware in their homes.

The company has faced unrelenting questions over the past 1½ years over its role in the spreading of misinformation during the 2016 presidential election. It also dealt with backlash after the discovery of how consulting firm Cambridge Analytica accessed personal data without authorization from users. Then last month, the company disclosed a security breach that may have affected at least 50 million accounts.

Facebook is betting that that users will find enough value in the Portal devices' video calling features and its privacy capabilities — which include a physical cover for the camera lens as well as a button that turns off the camera and microphones — to purchase the devices.

"We hope through that — both value and privacy focus — we're building that level of engagement and trust in users," said Rafa Camargo, vice president of Facebook's Portal division.