Episode  MSP49  Mic Drop Moments [Facebook Portal]
Episode  MSP49  Mic Drop Moments [Facebook Portal]
Technology companies, like people, don’t always make smart decisions. When they make truly disastrous ones, those are the mic drop moments. Today’s show takes a leap through the Portal.
These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the minor typos and grammar flaws.
You can tell when Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage has something on his mind. The air is more still, somehow. The pressure and the temperature drop. It’s not the eye of the storm, exactly. It’s more like the centre of madness, knowing that no matter which way you move, you’re about to be plunged into whirling insanity.
That’s fine if you’re listening at home where you can easily switch him off. It’s a little more scary when you’re locked inside a small, soundproofed studio with him.
What’s on your mind?
· Facebook. They’ve done something silly, again.
· And this time, it’s a genuine mic drop moment.
· Back in 2012 Mark Zuckerberg told the world that Facebook was not in the business of making hardware.
· Jump to October 2018 and FB is making hardware. Specifically, a voice activated communication screen that works rather like Amazon’s Echo devices.
To be fair, Facebook has been in the hardware game for a few years, since it bought over Oculus, the Virtual Reality specialist.
· Yes, but that was as much about bringing FB up to speed with VR in general.
· Not because the company wanted to become the world leader in moleman goggles.
The Portal device has been on the cards for a long time. Reports suggest it was delayed for 6 months.
· And the reasons for that delay are one of the reasons we’re talking about it today.
· Regular listeners will probably have noticed that we don’t pay much attention to gadget releases on this show.
· So gadgets have to be very very good or very very bad in order to grab our attention.
I’ll take a guess. The Portal is very very good?
· I think the Portal may end up belonging in category roughly alongside the Smart hairbrush we loved so much last year.
· For those of you who really don’t care about these things and who haven’t heard what Facebook is up to this week the Portal and that’s with a capital P, is a smart communication device, Bluetooth speaker, Home hub etc etc with a big screen.
· It’s essentially Facebook Messenger with a screen.
And it’s ugly? It’s slow? It doesn’t work at all?
· None of those things.
· One of the wonders of the particular age that we find ourselves in is that there are very few truly bad electronic devices.
· Yes, of course, you can find yourself in trouble if you opt for those generic brands but don’t meet international safety requirements and all that kind of stuff.
· By and large, anything that comes out of a reputable company is usually half decent in terms of build and design and functionality.
· But that’s not the same as saying you need it or it’s a good idea.
It being a bad idea is not really a justification for taking up half an hour of everyone’s Friday morning.
· I agree. If it was a bad idea, we could mention it on the Geeks Squawk and never talk about it again.
· Because that’s where we send bad ideas to die in the fires of public opinion.
· This is a terrible idea. This is a crushingly and excruciatingly terrible, terrible idea.
· This is like that idea of calling your ex at 4am to tell him or her how happy you are, and how over that person you are.
· This is like following up that call and driving over to his or her house before dawn, because there’s a really good all night burger place next door.
· And then leaving a burger, with no note, as a breakfast gift, because, hey, they’ll know you left it there for love.
It’s safe to say, you think it’s a bad idea.
· If you had a checklist of reasons not to manufacture and launch something, the Portal checks every single box.
· Let’s start with it as a Gadget in and of itself.
· It has some cool features.
· The camera can be locked to your face so you can actually move around the room and the camera tracks you.
· I wouldn’t say it was that ‘competition killer’ feature because it’s the kind of thing I can imagine will be introduced into its competitors with the software update.
It has a cool story-telling feature for kids.
· Yes, that’s one of it selling points.
· Let’s go back to that oculus rift collaboration – FB is getting pretty good at AR.
· The Portal has some cool AR features. The theory being that you can read your kids are a bedtime story if you’re not at home.
· And the screen becomes interactive.
· So elements of the story will pop up on the screen, and those funny animations will pop up around your own faces as the story progresses.
· For example, grandpa might suddenly morph into the big bad wolf. Though that might not be a good thing.
Surely that means it’s not a terrible idea?
· Except that I was on a panel at the BFM health event last weekend.
· Parents are looking for ways to decrease their kids screen time.
· We also know that looking at screens before bedtime can disrupt sleep patterns.
· We also know, that one way to read kids a story over video link is the simple analogue one: just have two copies of the flaming book.
· You read from one, the kids look at the other. It’s not rocket science.
· You don’t have to reinvent the book and call it a bus.
· It’s busywork. Making nothing into something.
You don’t think it does enough?
· I don’t really understand its purpose.
· It’s basically Facebook messenger in a device that costs you US$200.
· Or US$350 if you want one with a large screen.
It must have apps?
· It does. And I imagine the app store will increase in scope and scale over time.
· Because it can also be used as a photo Display thingy, I would imagine that we will see some fairly tight integration with Instagram, which Facebook also owns, at some point.
· What it doesn’t seem to want you to do is to escape onto the Internet at large.
· It’s really dedicated to serving up content from within Facebook.
· And when you do escape outside Facebook’s ecosystem it surrenders control to Amazon’s Alexa, making it, if possible the worst of both worlds.
· And there are an enormous number of issues with that.
Like younger consumers not wanting to use Facebook?
· That’s one issue, for sure.
· I don’t see how this device addresses any of those generation gap issues.
· Unless it plans to simply skip the generation.
· Trying get the buy in for the device from its older consumers and also from the youngest generation of parents
· Will then get their own kids into the habit of using Facebook by the screen at a very early age.
· And Facebook has already created huge amount of controversy with its messenger kids app.
Because of the privacy and data tracking issues?
· Yes. The way to approach content kids is one of the technology industry is struggling with in general.
· It’s not just limited to Facebook.
· It’s all very well for adults to ignore the terms and conditions and just click agree on every app they download…
· And let’s face it that’s what we’ll do.
· But Do you have the right to ignore the details of that contract when you agree to it on your child’s behalf?
· When we talk about data gathering there are huge and very long-term implications.
· But that’s not really one of my biggest problems with the Portal, it’s just part of that laundry list of objections.
What are your biggest problems with it?
· My biggest problem is why it exists at all.
· Like a said it’s basically a giant Facebook messenger app with screen.
· Facebook messenger is the app that we all hate.
· If you’re going to make an expensive piece of hardware, at least base it on the parts of your service that people actually like.
· It’s as if Subway stopped selling the inside bits of the sandwich and just sold us the bread.
· That’s not what we want. You can buy better bread pretty much anywhere.
· It’s the fillings and the sauces that make the sub.
· And that’s how it is with the Portal. It basically does one thing that we don’t want and kind of ignores the bits we do.
And you could just use your phone?
· Exactly. What does the Facebook Portal offer you that no other device does?
· You can use your phone for your tablet or your laptop to do exactly what this device can do – namely video calling and showing your photos.
· Those devices have the benefit of doing a lot of other things besides.
· So why would you spend that kind of money on this device?
· Not just that, you would probably have to buy multiples of the screens.
· Because as much as we say they’re portable, we’re all really lazy.
· Amazon knows that, which is why its devices come in a huge range of configurations and price points which makes it easier to dot them around your home if you’re buying into that ecosystem.
· So if you’re already facing the cost of buying funds and tablets for everyone in your family, which can do all the things that the Portal offers, why would you need to spend potentially thousands of dollars more on this?
When we come back. More reasons to fuel your irrational hatred.
Before the break, Matt was making the case that Facebook’s Portal device is a step in the wrong direction for the company. We talked about companies like Amazon. Is what Facebook is doing really so different?
· It’s not that It’s different.
· It’s more about the purposes behind it.
· If you have one of Google’s Home devices or one of Amazon’s Echo series, you’ve made your decision to buy into that ecosystem.
· With Google, you get all the power and access of the Internet built into your device.
· You get your Netflix and Spotify and all your other services.
· With the Echos there’s an even tighter sense of integration.
Because you’re linking into Amazon’s retail system?
· Yes. You have the ability to buy goods from Amazon’s network a retail sites.
· Which, as was mentioned in countless shows, seems to be expanding a little like our own universe, at an ever increasing rate and into who knows what.
· Very soon we won’t be able to see the outer edges of Amazon’s empire.
· And that’s fine. By and large the company is upfront about the way the devices behave, there is a trade-off in privacy when you decide to buy one piece devices.
But the Portal does a lot of that same stuff…
· Yes. You can listen to services like Spotify on the Portal.
· I’m not sure whether they will be apps for content like Netflix because Facebook is pushing its own TV service.
· Amazon has its own prime video streaming service as well as music streaming services as well.
· But as I said, in terms of access and connectivity, Facebook is somehow offering us the worst of both worlds.
In terms of privacy?
· Yes, because the company is saying that it won’t be listening to you, it won’t be passing Data to third parties when you’re accessing content outside of its main sites.
So that’s a good thing?
· No. It’s a bad thing.
· Because when you go out of that Facebook specific content, you do so using Amazon Alexa.
· So suddenly you have one device harvesting your personal habits for two very data hungry companies.
· And this is very definitely an example, from the consumer standpoint, that less equals more.
In Facebook’s defence, it has installed hardware stops to prevent the cameras and microphones being switched on remotely.
· Yes. Those are very definitely good things.
· It’s also a measure of how low our trust in Facebook’s that it’s offering that functionality on its devices.
· And that brings me to another reason that I don’t understand why this device exists.
Because we don’t trust Facebook?
· The backlash against Facebook this year in terms of trust in privacy and intrusion is incredible.
· Amazon tends to get away with a lot more because it seen more as a retail rather than a lifestyle company.
· Obviously that’s perception rather than a reality. Amazon is working very hard to blur or even erase those boundaries.
· This is the climate of trust we are currently in.
· So it’s no surprise when we hear reports that the launch of the Portal was delayed by six months because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
· It seems weird to me that it wasn’t put on a more permanent hiatus or sent back to the lab.
Again, to be fair to Facebook, they’re not the only tech company facing privacy and regulatory issues.
· Which actually reinforces my point.
· And only this week we heard that Amazon has had to abandon a much vaunted AI that it was hoped would revolutionise recruitment and HR because the data it was built on led it to discriminate against female job candidates.
· Of the social media companies, Facebook has been the most transparent and seemingly the most willing to address it failings.
· Twitter and Google’s responses have been woeful at best.
· Twitter still seems to cherry pick who has to adhere to its community standards and who doesn’t.
And this week we learned that Google is shutting down the consumer side of its Google+ social media service.
· Yes. It’s easy to forget that Google has a social media service because most of us have done just that, forgotten about it.
· As you said, this week we found out that Google plans to close the service,
· And we also found out that third parties had been able to breach user data in much the same way that Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit Facebook’s system.
· It took advantage of a bug that allowed them to see the information of friends of the people that had given that services consent.
· And rather than admit that data breach, Google decided to stay silent.
In theory, then, Facebook is ahead of the game.
· In terms of transparency, yes.
· And especially as only last month it admitted to a further data breach to around 50 million accounts.
· That’s why I described the Portal launch as a mic drop moment.
· This is the time for Facebook to be building trust and rebuilding its reputation.
· Launching a device that is as potentially intrusive as the Portal in a climate and atmosphere of historic levels of distrust is an absolutely appalling decision for the company.
· Every company reaches that tipping point where changes in direction can push it towards success or decline.
· This would seem to indicate decline.
You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when Mark Zuckerberg is crowned World Leader in a few years time.
· I will be. Because I still think it’s Jeff Bezos who is going to end up as Emperor of the World and All That Lies Beyond It.
· I understand that Facebook has unexpectedly found itself out of place and out of step with times.
· And that’s a really really strange place to be for a company that’s so enormous and is less than 20 years old.
· That’s the cruel world of technology.
You mean adapt or die?
· Facebook doesn’t seem to be paying much heed to that.
· It seems intent on bending its customers to what it wants, which is precisely the way that companies die.
· When you look at the tech cemetery, it’s full of the rotting remains of companies who thought they owned their users.
· That’s one of the things that Amazon is so good at. They come from a retail space.
· They know you have to court their customers.
· You have to give them special offers, flatter them, make them feel special. Earn their trust.
Should we give them that trust?
· What concerns me is that companies like FB and Google and Twitter seem to think they deserve our trust.
· Look at Microsoft. It’s so much more customer focused now. It has a much softer approach than it did in the 90s and early noughties.
· Think how much we used to moan about Microsoft and its products. The bugs, the crashes and the indifference.
· How often do you moan about Microsoft today?
· That’s what makes Amazon such a dangerous rival.
· Amazon is turning entire industries and retail sectors upside down but it keeps it customers happy.
· We should love Facebook, not resent it.
Can Facebook turn it around?
· I don’t know. I do know that they’re not the only company to put a lot of time and money into a silly idea an come out the other side.
· Look at pretty much everything Apple did in the 90s. The Newton was a great product that was 20 years too early.
· Ditto all the palm pilots and pockets PCs. By the time the technology caught up we could shoehorn everything they did into a phone.
· Google Glass and Snapchat’s sunnies.
· Amazon’s weird Fire phone.
So, you’re saying tech companies shouldn’t stray too far?
· I’m saying they should question their own motives.
· Look at Google’s Pixel phones.
· The 3 came out this week and it’s really interesting. It integrates AI into a smartphone in new and quite cool ways.
· From the way it handles data to the way it creates photos.
· And I mean that literally – it doesn’t take photos as much as create them from multiple data sources and angles.
Google’s Pixel phones aren’t really a mass market device though…
· True. No matter how much Google claims they are.
· Samsung probably sells more Android phones in a week than Google will sell in a year.
· When you buy a Pixel you’re essentially buying into an Alpha test of what smartphones can be.
· And that’s where I think Facebook’s Portal fails. It seems to exist to make Mark Zuckerberg’s life better rather than ours.
· And that’s the wrong way round.