It only took a deadly viral outbreak, but Facebook’s video chat hardware is finally popular.
As CNBC’s Todd Haselton reported last week, Facebook’s Portal TV device is sold out everywhere. The $150 camera turns any television into a big screen for video chat, letting users talk to friends and family through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Although hardly anyone was buying Facebook’s Portal hardware before, the Portal TV in particular is taking off as people seek out more ways to stay in touch while on lockdown.
While video chatting on the TV feels more immersive and lifelike than talking through a phone or tablet, I wish there was another option, one that wasn’t tied to a company with so much privacy baggage. The overnight success of Portal TV proves that the demand for big-screen video chat exists. If we keep depending on video chat after the pandemic dies down—and I think we will—we’ll need something similar from a company with a solid privacy record that doesn’t require people to use Facebook.
I’m talking, of course, about Apple.
The case for FaceTime on the TV
Apple already has a lot of the pieces in place to make a killer big-screen video chat device. For one thing, it has the FaceTime video chat service, which is preinstalled on roughly 1.5 billion devices around the world. With a hypothetical video chat device for the TV, users could talk to any iPhone, iPad, or Mac user without making them install any new apps.
Apple also has a complete streaming platform ready to go with tvOS, which powers its existing Apple TV hardware. One could imagine Apple selling a video camera as an accessory for the Apple TV or rolling both functions into a single device, then offering FaceTime as an app on users’ home screens. By comparison, Portal TV only offers a small number of video apps, so it’s not a complete streaming TV solution.
One of Portal TV’s neater ideas is its “Watch Together” feature, which lets users host group viewing sessions for Facebook Watch videos, with picture-in-picture mode for video chat. Apple could potentially offer something similar with videos on its own Apple TV service, or perhaps even with other tvOS apps such as Netflix. You can already use FaceTime while playing videos in other apps on an iPad, so the idea of doing something similar on Apple TV (with synchronized video playback across devices) doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Most importantly, an Apple TV video chat device wouldn’t come with any of Facebook’s privacy concerns. To be fair, Facebook has insisted that it’s not recording the content of Portal TV calls, which are end-to-end encrypted, and that it uses on-device AI to digitally pan and zoom as people move around the room. (The device also has a physical privacy shutter, which is increasingly becoming table stakes for smart home devices with cameras.)
Still, Apple’s privacy assurances are even stronger. The company doesn’t use Siri voice recordings for human review unless you opt in, and unlike Facebook, it doesn’t collect information about who you interact with for ad-targeting purposes. And given Facebook’s history of security breaches and broken privacy promises (such as its use of two-factor authentication phone numbers for ad targeting), putting an Apple camera in your living room might require less of a leap of faith.
Apple could then parlay that trust into other uses for its TV camera. It could, for instance, recognize when a user has entered a room and switch to the appropriate Apple TV profile, or it could use presence to trigger certain smart home devices through HomeKit. The company already has the patents for these kinds of scenarios.
A big bet for Apple
That’s not to say the case for a FaceTime on the TV is airtight.
Stephen Baker, a tech industry analyst for NPD Group, sees the sudden selling out of Portal TV as just an extension of webcam sales, which he says have spiked by as much as 400% in recent weeks. He believes that people are looking generally for products that offer video chat right now, and aren’t gravitating toward TVs in particular.
Besides, Baker says, any new hardware would take at least a year to produce, and it’s unclear to what extent people will still be depending on video chat then. To build an Apple TV FaceTime device based on behavior during extraordinary times would be a risky move.
“You’re talking about 12 months out, people doing things based on three weeks of sales. That’s a pretty big bet,” he says.
Still, Apple isn’t one to shy away from big bets on category-defining products, and FaceTime could be the killer feature that Apple TV has been missing. At $180 for the Apple TV 4K, the hardware is nearly four times the price of comparable Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, yet it doesn’t offer much more in terms of capabilities. The sudden success of Portal TV at $150 shows that people are paying a premium specifically for video chat. And given that FaceTime only works on Apple devices, it would further strengthen the lock-in powers of Apple’s ecosystem.
As for whether video chat will stick around in a post-coronavirus world, I’m more optimistic than Baker. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve noticed that video chat has become more than just a stand-in for our real-world interactions. I’m FaceTiming with my parents and sister more than I ever did before, and book-reading sessions between my parents and young children have become a daily event instead of a weekly or weekly one. Meanwhile, my wife has been jumping onto video calls with high school and college friends that used to only talk sporadically through text, and I’ve set up a group video call with my high school buddies for the first time in years.
Maybe all of that is just temporary, and we’ll forget about face-to-face communication with faraway friends after the world opens back up again. But the longer this lockdown drags on, the more video chat feels like a normal way to communicate instead of just a novelty. Facebook might be the first company to bring that feeling to the biggest screen in your house—but it shouldn’t be the only one.