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With Portal Go, Facebook wants to kill the family iPad

Facebook has built the first portable smart display, and is introducing a new household mode that makes it easier to separate work from play.

A photo of a Portal Go smart display

Facebook's new Portal Go device will go on sale for $199 in October.

Photo: Facebook

Facebook is coming for the coffee table tablet: The company on Tuesday introduced a new portable version of its smart display called Portal Go, which promises to be a better communal device for video calls, media consumption and many of the other things families use iPads for.

Facebook also announced a revamped version of its Portal Pro device Tuesday, and introduced a new household mode to Portals that will make it easier to share these devices with everyone in a home without having to compromise on working-from-home habits. Taken together, these announcements show that there may be an opening for consumer electronics companies to meet this late-pandemic moment with new device categories.

The first portable smart display

The $199 Portal Go combines a 10-inch touch screen with a 12-megapixel front-facing camera. It sits atop a wireless charging dock and features a handle for portability. The device's internal battery is supposed to support five hours of video calling and up to 14 hours of music listening.

Facebook is first among the major smart display makers to address people's appetite for a portable device. Being able to make a video call anywhere in the home may already sound like a useful premise to many people. But dig a little deeper, and the Portal Go quickly starts to look like a device designed to replace the family iPad.

"I've got three young kids, and calling the grandparents has always been a challenge," said Portal VP Ryan Cairns. With mobile devices, cameras frequently were pointed at the ceiling; Portal Go's smart display keeps people naturally in frame without the need for special stands or sleeves.

At the same time, the charging dock makes it harder for one member of the family to monopolize the device. "The device is naturally going to have a home," Cairns said. "It plays that role of an always-on screen in your home, and has a central default location."

Facebook is also betting that media consumption, long a popular feature on tablets, will become a major Portal Go use case as well. "We were able to optimize for listening to music," said Portal product manager Minjae Lee. The two integrated speakers and the additional woofer help to make it stand apart from mobile devices, he said. "With tablet speakers, it's difficult to deliver the level of sound that you can do with a Portal."

A work device that's also a family device

When Facebook introduced its first Portal devices three years ago, it primarily focused on family and personal communication. With the pandemic, the company has added a bunch of work-related functionality, including the ability to take Zoom calls and support for Facebook Workplace.

On Tuesday, Facebook took a major step toward better integrating those two worlds with the launch of "household mode" — a feature that lets Portal owners share a subset of apps and contacts with everyone in their home. "A lot of people use Portals with everyone in their family," Lee said. "And while you want everyone to be able to contact Grandma, you don't necessarily want everyone to be able to reach your work colleagues."

Household mode also happens to be another major differentiator from tablet devices. Apple still doesn't offer multi-user support for the iPad, which means that device owners often share all of their emails, text messages and documents with everyone in their home. "Ideally, we want everybody in a home to be logged into a Portal," Cairns said, hinting at plans for additional features along the lines of household mode.

Household mode will also be available on all other Portal smart display devices, including a new 14-inch Portal Plus that ditches the swivel screen of the original Plus. Turns out a large vertical screen was great in theory, but hard to integrate into real-life homes. "We found kitchens to be especially challenging," Cairns said. "This was right at the height where an overhead cabinet would bump into the top."

Facebook is trying to meet the moment

A screen that was too tall for many kitchen cabinets may be the perfect metaphor for the work-in-progress nature of Facebook's smart display business. When the company launched its first Portal devices in 2018, it was still dealing with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.

Three years later, people have gotten a lot more comfortable with video calling, and perhaps even cameras in general, due to the way everyone's life has changed during the pandemic. This is giving Facebook the confidence to take some swings and experiment with new device categories as it tries to meet the moment.

The company is also emboldened by the fact that the Portal ultimately turned out to be a lot less controversial with regular people than its initial media coverage would have suggested. "The backlash was very much predicted," said Facebook's VP of consumer hardware Andrew Bosworth. "It never really materialized amongst consumers."

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Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

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