James McConnell didn't know much about Facebook's Portal until Nan Owen, his 91-year-old neighbor, needed help setting up her video chat device last month as the UK locked down to combat the coronavirus.
Owen's active social life -- friends and family would stop by her London home every day for a glass of wine or two -- had come to a halt, leaving her lonely. After she turned to WhatsApp, a Facebook messaging app, to stay in touch, her son sent her a Portal because the social network's video chat device works with the service. The only problem: Owen couldn't figure out how to use it.
That's how McConnell, who runs a home automation company called Homesmart Solutions, got involved. Maintaining social distance, the 55-year-old walked Owen through the instructions for using the Portal. He wore gloves and a mask as he gave a quick demo.
"The next day, I saw her across the wall and she was back to herself," McConnell said, adding that Owen spent the day chatting with her grandchildren and friends. "It's brought her back to life during the lockdown."
As people stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, Facebook Portal is finding an audience among older adults, like Owen. Portal adopters include people older than 65, a group at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The device has gained traction in part because it's relatively easy to use, and works with WhatsApp and Messenger, another Facebook chat app. It also has a smart camera that keeps you in frame even if you're moving around that room. A built-in app called Story Time lets parents change their faces to resemble storybook characters like a pig and wolf when reading to children. Facebook says the device is popular with multigenerational families.
Read more: 6 devices to keep tabs on your aging family members without invading their privacy
Numbers on Portal sales are hard to come by. Facebook says sales and usage have risen since the coronavirus outbreak started, but declined to provide data. On Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said sales of Portal devices have grown by more than 10 times but didn't specify a time period. A Facebook spokeswoman didn't respond to questions about the figure Zuckerberg cited. Portal TV, which converts a television into a chat device, is sold out on Facebook's website, Amazon and Best Buy. (Other models are still available.) Some users have also reported delays in shipping after ordering the Portal TV device directly from Facebook.
"We are working to make additional Portal TV devices available as quickly as we can," a Facebook spokeswoman said, adding that production of the device has been impacted by the coronavirus.
David Watkins, a director at Strategy Analytics, said demand for video chat devices, particularly ones with large screens, has risen in recent weeks.
"We suspect that Facebook's Portal has benefitted from this spike in demand," Watkins said in an e-mail. "There has clearly been a surge in usage of video calling devices and services in the home as a result of work from home and shelter in place policies and we believe that this will have had a positive impact on demand for larger screen smart displays."
Strategy Analytics estimates that Facebook shipped around 1 million units of its Portal devices in North America in 2019 and around 200,000 units in the first quarter of 2020, representing less than 2% of the combined smart speaker market in North America, which includes smart displays. Amazon has an estimated 45% of the smart speaker market, followed by Google at just under 30%.
The device seems to have found a home with older users, if only because their children are getting Portals for them. Those children are often taking to Twitter to share the experience more broadly.
Facebook Portal made its debut in 2018, the same year revelations surfaced that Cambridge Analytica, a UK political consultancy, harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their permission. The data privacy scandal tarnished the image of the world's largest social network and invited heightened scrutiny from lawmakers, celebrities and even one of the company's founders.
Concerns about Facebook's commitment to privacy made it difficult for people to bring a camera made by the company into their homes. Facebook added a physical cover to Portal's camera, a design choice widely seen as acknowledging the company's struggling reputation for privacy. (CNET'S Megan Wollerton found Facebook had too many problems, including privacy, to overcome and recommend readers "don't buy" Portal TV. She still doesn't recommend the product, but the coronavirus pandemic changed her mind about smart displays)
Privacy woes weren't the only challenge the social media giant faced when it came to getting consumers to buy into Portal. Facebook has stiff competition from the Google Home Hub, Amazon Echo Show and other smart devices. Apple's FaceTime is included in the software that powers its Mac computers, iPhones and iPads. There are also free video chat options like Zoom and Microsoft's Skype, though those don't always offer the same video quality as a dedicated device. On top of that, Facebook isn't known for making consumer hardware, so people might not know the device exists, despite an extensive ad campaign featuring the Muppets.
Facebook is actively promoting the device during the coronavirus outbreak, donating Portal machines to both veterans and older adults. The social network teamed up with the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Red Cross to get about 7,400 Portal devices in the hands of veterans. Earlier this month, Facebook gave more than 2,000 Portal devices to the UK's National Health Service for use in care homes and hospitals.
The company has also slashed the prices of its Portal devices, discounting three of Facebook's Portal devices by $50 through Mother's Day. The 8-inch Portal Mini is $79; the 10-inch Portal, $129; and the 15.6-inch Portal Plus, $229.
California resident Mary Guilbault Linam, 55, said she purchased a Portal so her 72-year-old relative Jimmy, who is developmentally disabled, could keep in touch with family and his caregivers. Looking for something easier to use than the Amazon Echo Show, Linam decided to purchase a Portal because it worked with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
She then ordered two more Portal devices from Best Buy after Facebook delayed its shipping. Linam plans to use the augmented reality features on the devices to become characters in the stories she plans to read to her friend's kids during quarantine.
"The ability to go and do something super silly instead of the typical is really appealing right now," she said.
'A deeper level of connnection'
Months before the outbreak began, Rafael Concepción, a photographer and adjunct professor at Syracuse University in New York, bought a Facebook Portal for his 71-year-old mom, Cristela, who lives in Florida. She spends a lot of time in the kitchen and living room, so he wanted a device that allowed family members to drop in and chat, sort of like a digital door to her life.
During the outbreak, Concepción, 45, purchased a Portal TV for his living room and then another Portal for his kitchen. Being able to hold a cup of coffee or watch his mom make tamales while she chats, he said, is different than using free video services.
"For her to just be sitting there making food and be able to just look up and talk," he said, "it's a deeper level of connection."
Still, some Facebook users are still wary about putting a Facebook Portal and other smart devices in their homes even if their grandparents are using it.
Jason Holloway, a 33-year-old assistant director at UT Martin, part of the University of Tennessee system, said that his 95-year-old grandfather uses a Portal to keep in touch with family. But Holloway says he wouldn't buy one himself because phones already have video chat and they're enough of a "tracking device." He once won a Google Home but it's still gathering dust in his car's trunk.
"I don't know about the Facebook Portal but I know these types of technologies can be hacked," he said.
Privacy wasn't a big topic of discussion for Owen when McConnell set up his neighbor's device. She didn't seem very interested in the cover for Portal's camera.
McConnell also said Owen has taken a shine to the Portal. "I think she'll continue using it," he said, "because she suddenly realized that her grandchildren are connected this way."