Back Off, Grandma, I'm Working Remotely From My Portal

Facebook’s new battery-powered Portal is portable and intended for your boss AND your grandparents.

Way back in April 2020, when we were first locking down, I wrote that the Facebook Portal was the perfect gadget for the pandemic. The Portal has a smart camera that can follow you around the room with a wide-angle lens, which means that unlike with laptops or iPads, it’s easy for two people to fit onscreen together. The perfect use case is Grandma and Grandpa using it to video-chat with the grandkids (if you have ever seen two boomers try to cram both faces into one phone for FaceTime, you get it). Grandparents across the globe were itching to pinch little cheeks, but those same grandparents were the most vulnerable to COVID-19, so distance was kept. The Portal offered a temporary solution.

Now with vaccinated grandparents cautiously visiting family, Facebook wants the Portal to shift focus its gaze on a new target: your job. The latest model of the Portal+, with a larger screen, is designed in the hopes that you (or your boss) will use it for all those work video calls you’ve been doing over your shitty laptop for the last year and a half. “It’s adding to the existing tool kit that the average person has trying to work remotely,” said Andrew Bosworth, VP of Reality Labs at Facebook.

The Portal+’s screen tilts to adjust and is meant to sit on a desktop. It’s a less bulky and more sleek design than the older Portal+, which had a screen that could rotate to go vertical for portrait style (Bosworth said they noticed most people kept it in landscape the majority of the time).

“Very early in the pandemic, we realized, Oh, this is a tool we should be doing more development on,” Bosworth said. “We started to be guided more and more by two use cases: connecting with family and friends, and then being successful in your home office.”

Facebook issued Portals to most of its full-time employees when it became clear last spring that the office wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon. Bosworth said he and his colleagues became used to having a dedicated screen for video calls, and saw the benefit of not using their computers for those calls. People seemed less distracted and more engaged with their colleagues (it’s harder to discreetly check Twitter, which may be a downside for you). They became a valuable pool of product testers. One thing Bosworth and his team heard from employees was that they wanted the Portal, which needs to stay plugged into the wall, to be portable, so they could move it from room to room.

The new Portal Go does just that: It runs on a battery so you can move it around while you chat. At $199, it replaces the smaller and cheaper 8-inch Portal Mini, which will be discontinued.

The smart camera that follows you around was the Portal’s greatest feature, the thing that made it the best video-chatting device for the price. But now there’s competition. Apple iPads now have a feature called “Center Stage” that follows you around the room on a FaceTime or Zoom call. An entry-level iPad is now about $20 cheaper than the Portal+, and an iPad certainly does more stuff than a Portal.

Facebook’s ambitions in hardware and AR/VR seem to have shifted from being for fun (family chatting and gaming) to work. Recently it announced Workroom Horizons, a virtual reality work meeting where you use the Oculus Quest headset to send an avatar of yourself to sit in a boardroom with your other colleagues’ avatars.

There’s also an update to the software for the Portal homescreen. It adds some much-needed features, like more widgets on your homescreen, especially a very useful calendar. Now, you can just tap into a Zoom link from the calendar on the homescreen instead of manually typing in the meeting ID. Portal also has WebEx and GoToMeeting, and is finally adding Microsoft Teams (starting in December). Google Meet is not yet supported.

One other added feature is the option to use end-to-end encryption for Portal calls made through Facebook Messenger (calls made through WhatsApp were already end-to-end encrypted). This isn’t by default, however, you have to opt into it for the call, which is how it currently works on the regular Messenger app for your phone.

The most intriguing sign that Facebook is serious about making the Portal a remote work device is a new service called Portal for Business. This allows employees to log in to Portal not with their personal Facebook accounts but with a dedicated Facebook for Work account (this feature is currently being tested with a few companies and will expand in 2022). It also allows your company’s IT department to control your device in the way that it would a company laptop, including being able to remotely wipe the device if it is lost or stolen.

Making these devices more work-friendly has a positive side effect for Facebook: You might not want to plunk down $349 on a Portal+, but your company might buy it for you.

There are fewer obvious ways in which Portal is an imminent threat to democracy and our well-being.

Here’s the part where I have to put in the disclaimer about how you, a person who reads the news and is interested in technology and has some opinions probably about Facebook, may be somewhat skeptical about buying a Portal. Let me assuage the standard fears you may have: Facebook isn’t spying on you through the camera, it’s not stealing your face, it’s not listening to you while it’s off (it does have voice control, but you can turn this off). And if you’re someone who doesn’t have a Facebook account, you can now log in and use it completely through WhatsApp. If privacy is your big concern here, well, tbh, it’s pretty good.

If you have concerns about Facebook making some, er, dubious decisions over the last however many years, well, yeah. You should. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal published a series of reports about problems at Facebook showing the company not just mishandling one incident or topic, but deep systemic root issues with the way that the company makes decisions about handling a platform with a billion users.

One report was about how Instagram has ignored or downplayed its own internal research that showed negative effects on teen mental health from using the app. The Wall Street Journal obtained emails from executives saying that even though their latest internal research showed that hiding likes didn’t make much of a difference in teen mental health, it would look good in the press and to parents if they went ahead with launching a feature to hide likes.

There are fewer obvious ways in which Portal is an imminent threat to democracy and our well-being. The problems Facebook has struggled with for years: moderation, political extremism, misinformation, crime, and the distorted view of perfect bodies and lives on Instagram are not really within the purview of the Portal. The Portal is a nice happy device that just lets you chat with your family or coworkers. It’s unproblematic. In fact, the biggest problem was that you had to keep it plugged in, which was vaguely inconvenient, and they solved that with the Portal Go!

You may be someone who loves Facebook and can’t wait to use a Portal for work. You may be someone who hates Facebook with such a passion you’d rather quit your job than be forced to use one if your company sent you the device for free. Or you may be someone who has some problems with Facebook but can put those aside to enjoy a Portal, like enjoying Annie Hall despite the human behind it. Look, I don’t know you. I’m not sure I even want to. But we can chat on Portal and figure it out.

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