Facebook (FB - Get Report) is willing to go the extra mile to use hardware to grow user engagement for its social media and messaging platforms. But gaining significant traction will require successfully competing against a slew of alternatives -- including some from fellow tech giants.
On Wednesday morning, Mark Zuckerberg's firm unveiled three new Portal home video chat devices: A second-gen, 10-inch Portal that will retail for $179 ($20 less than the first-gen model); an 8-inch Portal Mini that will sell for $129; and (perhaps most intriguingly) the Portal TV, a $149 set-top that lets consumers use their TV sets to conduct video chats. The company also cut the price of its 15.6-inch Portal+ device by $70 to $279.
Separately, CNBC reported that Facebook is working with eyewear giant Luxottica on augmented reality glasses meant to arrive sometime between 2023 and 2025. The glasses, codenamed Orion, will reportedly "allow users to take calls, show information to users in a small display and live-stream their vantage point to their social media friends and followers."
Like its original Portal devices, which launched a year ago, Facebook's new Portal products run Amazon.com's (AMZN - Get Report) Alexa voice assistant, and can function as smart speakers. But at a time when legions of Alexa-powered devices are available from Amazon and third parties, the video chat features of Facebook's hardware, together with their ability to access some of Facebook's media content, are their main selling points.
Whereas Portal devices previously supported only Messenger video calls, they now also support WhatsApp video calls. The devices also come with a feature known as Watch Together, which lets users conduct a video chat through a picture-in-picture box while streaming a video from Facebook's Watch service. And their cameras can leverage machine learning software to stay focused on users as they walk around a room while a video chat takes place, as well as to emphasize the voice of whoever is speaking at a particular moment.
And though some Facebook critics probably won't be satisfied, the company has baked in a slew of privacy and security features, some of which go beyond what rival products feature. Users can disable a device's microphone and camera by sliding a switch, and they can disable the storage of voice assistant interactions that (much like interactions on some other platforms) could be anonymously reviewed by a team of workers. In addition, WhatsApp video calls feature (like WhatsApp calls on phones) end-to-end encryption; Messenger encryption should arrive one day, given Facebook's plans to integrate and support end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.
More than privacy concerns, smartphones and tablets could be the biggest roadblock to creating a mass-market for Facebook's Portal line. Whether via Messenger, WhatsApp or third-party platforms such as FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype or Google Hangouts, consumers have grown quite accustomed to using their mobile devices to conduct video chats. And while these devices aren't as large as a TV screen and usually need to be held in one's hand(s), they also have the benefit of not being fixed to one location while a video chat takes place.
If a consumer decides that he or she is content to keep relying on a phone and/or a tablet for video calls, then the sales pitch for Portal devices relative to products such as Amazon's Echo Show smart display or Alphabet/Google's (GOOGL - Get Report) Nest Home Hub smart display, which are respectively integrated with a number of Amazon and Google services, becomes a lot weaker.
Meanwhile, though the AR headset market is in its infancy and much could change over the next few years, it does look as if Facebook's AR headset will face competition from one or more tech giants. Apple (AAPL - Get Report) is reportedly working on an AR headset that would be paired with iPhones, and has bought a handful of AR-related startups. Google is still selling its Glass AR headset to businesses -- a second-gen, $999, Glass headset launched earlier this year -- and there's speculation that the company will eventually launch a more consumer-focused product. And though it's aimed at businesses, Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) unveiled a second-gen HoloLens AR headset in February.
Ultimately, considering how important smartphone pairing will likely be for consumer AR headsets, Apple and Google might have the high ground in an AR platform battle, given that they control the world's two dominant mobile operating systems and a host of related apps and services. While the potential of Facebook to integrate its widely-used social and messaging services with an AR headset would work in its favor, Google (for example) could integrate Google Assistant, Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail, Hangouts and Google Photos, while pitching its giant developer base on creating AR apps that pair with their existing Android apps.
Nonetheless, it's hard to blame Facebook for dialing up its hardware efforts. If the new Portal devices lead a few million or more consumers to engage more with Messenger and WhatsApp, that's a win for Facebook at a time when Zuckerberg envisions the platforms eventually becoming the main ways people communicate across Facebook's app family. And even if Apple and Google have some major strategic advantages in this fight, it's arguably worth it for Facebook to take a shot at developing a mass-market AR headset platform, given the potential payoff.
But for now, given what the competition looks like, it's probably best to keep expectations in check for Facebook's hardware projects.
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