Facebook sends its Portal smart display to work

A new Workplace app for Portal is among a raft of features announced at this week’s Flow user conference.

Workplace app on Portal
Facebook

Facebook wants to bring its Portal video display hardware to the office with the introduction of a dedicated Workplace app - one of a handful of updates to the company’s enterprise social network announced at the Flow user conference in San Francisco this week.

Launched last year, Portal supports video calls between Facebook and WhatsApp users, with an AI powered “smart camera” that tracks body movements of speakers during calls. With the Workplace app, Portal can now be used to connect work colleagues, too.

"You will be able to use Workplace on a Portal device to communicate not with your friends but with your colleagues,” said Julien Codorniou, Facebook’s vice president for Workplace. “You will be able to call them on another Portal device, on their mobile phone if they are on the go or on their PC or iPads if they are in the office.”

To make calls on Portal, Workplace users must first sign into their personal Facebook account before logging in to their Workplace account.  The Workplace app will be available for Portal Mini, first- and second-generation Portal devices and Portal+. It is slated to arrive in December.

Shipments of Portal devices got off a slow start following its introduction, with 54,000 units shipped in 2018, according to IDC analysts. (The device was released in November, meaning those shipments all took place at the end of the year.) 

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Portal demand appears to have ramped up during 2019, (Facebook announced new devices last month) and Codorniou is bullish on the potential for the displays in a work setting. He noted that some Workplace customers requested trials of Portal after the device became available, and have subsequently been testing Portal devices in their organizations.

Two main use cases have emerged, said Codorniou.

One is for large companies that replace expensive legacy voice-over-IP or video-conferencing devices. “The [existing enterprise video hardware] solutions on the market are quite expensive and the quality is not great, so we are leveraging the investments that Facebook has in video conferencing on Facebook and WhatsApp and adapting it for the world of enterprise,” said Codorniou. He predicted some companies will put Portal devices on the desks of “every employee.”

The displays could also be used to connect remote workers. “You can also imagine every exec or mobile-only employees having Portal at their home office, helping them feel more connected to the people at the HQ,” he said.

While there is clear interest in Portal among some enterprise customers, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insights, she said the use of Workplace with Portal devices remains a “very early concept."

“Facebook does not yet have a business offering for Portal and there are questions about security and compliance around using Portal in a business context,” she said. “However, this does seem to be an early sign of another potential opportunity for Facebook to branch out in the enterprise market.”

Facebook continues its enterprise efforts

Workplace was Facebook’s first attempt to address the enterprise market; the enterprise social network launched in 2017 and the company has continued to add business-focused services such as an enterprise package for its Oculus virtual reality headset

Ashenden expects Facebook to continue to evolve its focus on corporate customers and predicts that the company will integrate Oculus for Business with Workplace in the next two to three years. The end result: a product aimed at “task workers” such as those in customer-facing, industrial or field-service roles.  

In addition, Portal could also serve as way to introduce Facebook’s voice assistant technology to the workplace. Facebook is reportedly working on its own AI assistant to integrate with Portal, as well as VR and AR products.  “The role of voice assistants in the enterprise is still very much being fleshed out, and Workplace by Facebook’s growing adoption will give it a valuable running start as it begins to explore the opportunities here,” said Ashenden.

Workplace adoption stats and new features

Facebook also highlighted adoption stats for its enterprise social network during the Flow conference.

There are now 3 million paid Workplace users, up from 2 million eight months ago. Facebook counts Walmart, Nestle and Dominos among its customers, with various businesses deploying Workplace to all workers - in some cases to more than 100,000 staffer.

Facebook has focused on “frontline” employees such as retail workers, introducing new features and pricing aimed at encouraging deployments of Workplace to employees that often have limited or no access to digital tools.

This strategy is paying off – and targeting deskless workers is likely to have boosted uptake of Workplace, said Ashenden. “Facebook continues to show impressive momentum with Workplace, with its focus on frontline or deskless workers continuing to create differentiation and opportunity for the brand,” she said. 

Facebook also unveiled a range of new features for Workplace. The list  includes enhancements to video capabilities within Workplace, including live video captioning and faster video. Those updates rely on a new peer-to-peer video solution that distributes a video stream to multiple viewers, rather than each individual getting his or her own stream.

One expected use for Workplace is live streaming, such as CEO presentations to the entire company.

“[This will] will allow our customers to consume less bandwidth using peer-to-peer protocols, reducing the cost of live streaming on Workplace, which is something our biggest customers have been asking for,” said Codorniou. 

Said Ashenden: “Video is an area that’s increasingly popular in the HR and Communications-led collaboration initiatives where Workplace is strongest, and Workplace is in a strong position given its ability to take advantage of the technology it inherits from the consumer Facebook platform.”

Other updates include the introduction of new “learning” posts within Workplace to encourage best practices and help employees gain new skills, as well as a new type of post that lets users “thank” colleagues; it automatically notifies an employee’s manager.  It is also possible to send short surveys via Workplace Chat, the business equivalent of Facebook’s Messenger app.   

A new analytics platform is designed to provide IT admins with more insight into corporate communities, allowing them to identify engaged users and view sentiment analysis for individual posts.

Facebook will also make Workplace available to frontline workers without a company email address and ensure that employees can only access the app during work hours to minimize digital overload.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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