Portal, Facebook's controversial talking speaker that hits store shelves Thursday, is not a snooping device – that's a message the social network says has gotten lost in the coverage leading up to the device's launch.
"The timing of the launch is a challenge, in terms of the brand and trust, and we're committed to improving on it," says Facebook vice-president Andrew Bosworth.
The concern about privacy is a persistent presence in most discussions about the video calling device since it was announced, particularly in light of Facebook's recent challenges with foreign interference and hacking that affected 30 million users. Top Facebook execs have said it would take at least a year, if not longer, to fix these issues.
Still, Bosworth says of Portal, "...this is the product you want. It's exclusively focused on connecting you with the people you care about the most. This is dedicated to having you stay close to them."
Portal has a built-in camera that can intuitively follow you around the room and uses the Facebook Messenger platform for making calls.
Now Facebook freely admits that it tracks the frequency and length of Messenger calls and that "some of this information may be used for advertising purposes. For example, we may use the fact that you make lots of video calls to inform some of the ads you see."
On top of that, Facebook, like Amazon and Google, records every query you make to the speaker – to learn how to answer correctly – and stores the audio of the requests. Bosworth says users will be able to find them in Facebook settings and delete the audio copies, if needed.
The $199 Portal, basically like an Amazon Echo speaker but with a 10-inch video screen, competes with the recently released Google Home Hub ($149, 7-inch screen) and the redesigned Amazon Echo Show ($229), which also has a 10-inch screen.
A larger edition, Portal +, with a 15-inch screen, sells for $349. The units will be available from Amazon, Facebook's Portal store and Best Buy retail and online. The Portal was originally scheduled for Nov. 15 delivery, according to the Facebook website.
Facebook insists that users won't see ads on the Portal display screen, but that if you listen to music from partners Pandora, iHeartRadio or Spotify, you might see ads from those companies.
Asked why Facebook needs to track this user data, Bosworth says it's primarily to help improve the network. "Understanding how long or frequent calls are helps us improve the service." As for the ad element, Boswell says, Facebook could target you as a frequent video caller and, thus, serve up ads targeting video services on other Facebook platforms.
Bosworth says the unit is a "game changer" that helps people feel closer to families by making better group video calls. So how's that different from Apple FaceTime, Google's Hangouts, Skype or any of the other video chat tools?
Being hands-free and not tying you up with holding a phone or computer in your hand, Bosworth says. "It's surprising how much power people have when they go hands-free," he says. "It's a different experience."
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