There's another tech mega-cap taking on Roku (ROKU -4.02%) for living room mindshare, and you will probably be surprised to learn that it's none other than Facebook (META -1.19%). The social networking behemoth just started rolling out Portal TV, a $150 set-top device that is billed as a television-based version of the videoconferencing tablet it rolled out last year.
Portal TV doesn't just supersize the imagery of one-to-one video chats. The new over-the-top gadget plays nice with Alexa voice commands as well as offering up a hub that for now offers access to a limited number of streaming video and music apps.
Facebook is a massive company with a global audience of 2.45 billion monthly active users. If it puts out a new appliance that happens to serve trending niches including streaming television and video chat, it's going to get noticed. Well, let's go over why Roku and its rivals don't have to worry about Facebook's latest product.
1. You still don't trust Facebook
You probably don't know a lot of people that own a Portal tablet. Despite slashing prices shortly after its launch last year, the original 8- and 10-inch smart screens haven't been brisk sellers. Facebook has marketed Portal aggressively -- even integrating the platform within popular TV shows -- but consumers haven't taken a shine to it the way that sit-com families have.
We can debate the merits of a stand-alone juice-slurping screen that is basically a tool for friends and family to hands-free FaceTime, but the real problem with all of the Portal products is that folks don't trust Facebook. With every congressional hearing misstep on CEO Mark Zuckerberg's part, Facebook slips as a social confidante.
If you think I'm wrong, I have a homework assignment for you. The next time you're in a group of friends, ask them if they think Facebook is monitoring what they're saying to serve up relevant ads. You will be surprised at the responses. It's not just your tin foil-capped uncle with the outlandish conspiracy theories that is concerned with Facebook's approach to data privacy. Even if it's all one glorious coincidence, that's the way the cookies crumble. It's the wrong time for Facebook to aspire to put cameras with microphones in your home.
2. This hub is no Roku
If you were early to the smart television game you probably remember the rudimentary portals that came factory-installed with Samsung and other Wi-Fi-tethered TVs. There's a reason why a growing number of manufacturers are turning to Roku's elite hub that offers access to thousands of streaming apps.
Facebook's Portal TV is woefully incomplete at its launch. None of the most popular apps are even available. STARZ, Showtime, and Red Bull TV are the highlights on the video end. There's a better selection of the top dogs when it comes to music, with Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Spotify on tap, but this is a smart television -- not a smart boombox.
One can argue that updates will roll out enhancing the offerings. There's no way that this survives past the holiday shopping season without Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Unfortunately the services you want will always be second fiddle to a device that would rather have you on Facebook Watch or communicating via WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Roku's agnosticism has helped it stand out against the competition, but in this case Roku's competence will also be a plus.
3. Reviews are brutal
Tech columnists and bloggers have been able to kick the tires on test units. The first wave of critiques have been scathing, to say the least. Punch "Portal TV" into Google and the first non-ad search result is a CNET piece with a sucker punch of a headline.
"No one should buy the Facebook Portal TV," warns the CNET headline.
Things don't necessarily get better after that.
"Facebook Portal TV Is Great Fun, But You Probably Won't Buy It" reads Buzzfeed's headline.
Even some of the slightly less negative takes that praise the quality of the video chat images can't help but to take a swing at the end.
"Facebook's Portal TV is video chat at its best. Too bad it's from Facebook" is USA Today's headline.
There is going to be a lot of resistance to this product, even before you consider that the $150 price tag is about five times more than what the entry-level dongles on the market cost. By the time the holiday shopping season is done, Facebook will be on the outside looking in. Even if it miraculously buffs up its reputation -- and there's still time for that -- the market will have moved on without it by the time your crazy uncle is the only one remaining with the Facebook conspiracy theories.