In brief: Facebook’s next attempt at hardware will reportedly come in the form of a device that can be attached to a TV and provide the user with access to some video content. While this in principle sounds like what an Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Stick does, the difference will be Facebook’s option is expected to come equipped with a camera and will be a unit that needs to be attached to the top of the TV, instead of hidden behind the TV like most media devices these days. Though not confirmed by the company, who have reportedly declined to comment, the information on this new product comes courtesy of a new report out of Cheddar, which in turn credits “people familiar with the matter” for the details.
While the device does not have an official name as of yet, the report details it’s currently being referred to in-house as “Ripley” and is understood to make use of artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology which is able to track the movements of a user when in close proximity to the device. A feature that is designed to ensure video calls (the purpose of the camera) are as useful as possible by always keeping the caller in view during a call.
Background: The technology described here is not new as it’s the exact same technology available in the company's Portal line of products. At present, this line of smart display devices, which Facebook only announced last week and is expected to begin shipping soon, is made up of two products which primarily differ in size with the larger unit also more designed for portrait use - a rarity in the smart display market in general. As a result, the Portal products are positioned as a competing solution to the likes of the Echo Show by Amazon and the collection of Google-endorsed smart displays, including Google’s own Home Hub. The difference being Portal is not quite as useful as other smart displays as it’s primarily designed to facilitate video calls and in particular communications made through Facebook’s ecosystem. In other words, it’s basically a camera that happens to have a screen so you can see the other person. Generally speaking, the suggestion in this latest report is Ripley will follow along the exact same lines as it will also be primarily used for Facebook service-related video calls. While it is understood Ripley will essentially be a TV version of a Portal device, there is no suggestion at the moment the new device will arrive to market as a Portal-branded product.
Regardless of its branding, the information suggests Facebook plans to hold out until Spring, 2019 before officially announcing the new TV-based device, although this is only a tentative date at the moment with one of the sources expressing the launch date could change, or be pushed back due to the device still being in the development stage. While the report does pick up on its ability to facilitate TV streaming, the underlying suggestion is this will again be mostly likely be tied to the company's ecosystem as it will primarily be used as a tool by Facebook to promote the company’s own video consumption-based service, Facebook Watch. Though it does still remain possible Facebook might launch the device with added support for third-party streaming apps and services. Which in itself would likely benefit Facebook as it would offer more selling appeal for those who happen to be in the market for a new streaming solution at the time, and especially considering it will be going up against competing products that offer a varied level of third-party app support.
Impact: The notion of a company as big as Facebook launching a new streaming product, and technically its first TV-based product, would under normal circumstances be extremely welcomed by the industry and consumers alike. However, it does seem abundantly clear that with Facebook any new hardware will face additional scrutiny now - again both from the industry as whole and consumers alike. This is due to the various security and privacy issues the company has faced in recent months and mainly a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal which consumed Facebook news earlier in the year. Since then, other security breaches have come to light which have further added to the pressure on Facebook to maintain a transparent and secure ecosystem.
Again, while these issues can most likely be overlooked by consumers who are more heavily invested in Facebook’s world, the company’s Portal line are already raising their own privacy concerns, and in spite of the devices having yet to begin shipping out to buyers. This has come about due to the general nature of the Portal line which seems to be preoccupied with a focus on watching users. For example, while Portal and Portal+, like virtually all smart displays, come with a camera shut off button to disable the camera feature, Google’s Home Hub which also launched last week has opted to go the route of no camera at all. While this in theory limits the potential of the product, it’s has been seen by the industry as a move in part to reassure buyers of the level of privacy afforded with the product. So it remains to be seen at the moment how popular the Portal line will prove to be at a time when privacy is so clearly on the mind of consumers, and especially when the products in question come from a company that has been at the center of multiple privacy-related headlines recently. Let alone the demand for a device that comes from the same company and that takes center-stage in the living room atop of the TV. Not to mention, this is all before taking into account how Facebook will face stiff competition from those who are already doing well in the streaming hardware market. As it would likely be the case a device that boasts a camera, as well as streaming capabilities, will cost more than the existing options. Although from the Facebook user perspective, as Ripley attaches to a display instead of coming with its own, it will likely be more affordable than the current Portal options which start at $199 in the US.