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Facebook’s new Portal increases privacy, but is still searching for a reason to exist

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The timing of the original Portal’s launch was less than ideal. The company reportedly pushed things back as the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit full broil, only to be hit with another data breach disclosure. If there’s a lesson to be learned with this year’s sequel, it’s that there may just not be a good time for the company to release a camera-mounted piece of home hardware.

If nothing else, the seemingly endless parade of bad publicity has had the knock-on effect of making the company particularly proactive about privacy in a way the competition lacks. One of my main complaints about Google’s Nest Hub Max is the lack of a physical camera shutter. The original Portal, meanwhile, came with a small piece of plastic that clipped over the camera.

“It was a nice thought, but, practically, users might lose that, and it’s not always visible and available for users who want to cover the camera gracefully,” Facebook Director, Product Management Micah Collins told TechCrunch. “So we wanted to make sure that was a very integral and communicative part of the design.”

Portal Call 1

The new version of the device swaps that in-box piece of plastic for a three-position physical button. All the way to right is open and ready for business. The middle covers the camera with a built-in physical shutter while keeping the mic on. Going all the way to the left disconnects both the camera and microphone. That also turns on a red LED, letting you know definitely both are off. For my own purposes, that middle setting is getting the most use. I suspect I won’t be alone on that front, either.

Of course, disabling the camera sort of defeats the primary purpose of the device. At its heart, the Portal is a home video conferencing product. The inclusion of things like Alexa smart display functionality and music services like Spotify and Pandora are nice, but they’re kind of bonuses. No one is buying a Portal because it’s a more compelling smart screen than an Echo Show or Google Nest Hub Max.

Facebook’s value proposition is its own ecosystem. It’s the implicit understanding that, if you’re a person who is on the internet, odds are you’ve already opted in to Facebook, Facebook Messenger and now WhatsApp. That’s where the device attempts to set itself apart.

The first generation did get a leg up with some very clever AI camera panning, zooming and framing. It was a great feature and one it would be nice to see incorporated into devices like the Echo Show, where the video chat experience leaves something to be desired. Google, meanwhile, adopted something similar for the Nest Hub Max (while the original, smaller device still lacks a camera), which surely has taken some of the wind out of Facebook’s sails here.

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“Nest has done a fine job,” Collins says, diplomatically. “We’re really happy they followed our lead in that sense of trying to deliver a richer calling experience.”

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One gets the feeling Facebook is very much trying to wrap its brain around what its differentiator is here, and the new version of the Portal doesn’t do much to clarify that mission statement. While the company insisted to me that the growing family of devices are a play in and of themselves, it’s hard to shake the notion that the Portal family operates better as a kind of reference design for how third-party hardware manufacturers might better integrate its services into their own designs.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Facebook can’t break away from this paradigm. The Microsoft Surface line presents a model for moving from reference to viable product. At the moment, however, there’s not a lot to recommend Facebook’s offerings, particularly with the external cloud of privacy offerings.

That said, there are things that can be taken away from this generation. The picture frame design, while far less interesting and aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor, does point to what is likely the future of these devices: a push to more seamlessly blend in with their surroundings. As the novelty of the category begins to wear off, more users are likely to choose function over form.

There’s also the clever kickstand. I’ll admit, I was a little baffled when I took the plug out of the box, but the rigid bit jutting from the back allows you to flip between portrait and landscape mode, depending on the source on the other end (mobile versus another Portal device), which would otherwise appear with letterboxing on the sides.

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The Portal includes some other nice touches. The company’s adding additional AR Effects and Story Time stories. Like the rest of the Alexa-powered smart displays, Portal lacks a YouTube app, though you can access that through the built-in browser. It’s an inconvenient workaround, but good to have nonetheless, given how key a service like YouTube feels to a smart display like this.

Otherwise, the less universal Facebook Watch is your primary video source here. There are 14 apps currently listed in the onboard store, including those that are already pre-installed. The list includes big names like CNN, Food Network, Pandora, Spotify and iHeartRadio. Beyond that, you’re going to be relying on the built-in browser, requiring a lot of typing on an upright screen.

The price is certainly decent. At $179, I can’t imagine Facebook is making a ton of money on these. In fact, it’s not entirely clear why Facebook is making the Portal at all, outside of the stock line of “want[ing] to connect the world.” Perhaps once it figures out that, it will have a reason why the rest of us should get on board.

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NEWS

Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

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But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

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One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Searchenginejournal.com

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