Back in November, long before COVID-19 was such a major factor in our lives, Facebook was the laughingstock of the tech hardware industry when it unveiled Portal, a collection of gadgets that allow the social network's billions of users to have video chats with each other.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, things have fundamentally changed for Facebook's once-laughable product.

If you head over to Facebook's Portal website today, you'll find that the company's $149 Portal TV, a video calling device that captures your video communication with others and uses your television as a viewing device, is sold out. In a statement to CNBC, Facebook said that other Portal products, including the standalone video conferencing devices Portal mini, Portal, and Portal+, are also attracting customer interest, but haven't sold out yet.

"As people are taking measures to socially distance themselves and move to working from home, we're seeing increased interest in Portal, both in sales and usage," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to CNBC. "We're pleased that we can help people connect with family, friends and colleagues during this time."

But there may be another element to the Portal TV being out of stock: the company's spokesperson also said that Facebook has been hit with production problems because of quarantines along its supply chain. In other words, Facebook also has a supply problem.

Still, the irony isn't lost on anyone who has followed the tech industry for as long as I have.

Facebook's Portal and Portal TV devices were near-universally panned by reviewers who questioned why anyone would want Facebook to have a camera in their homes. They worried that Facebook's track record on privacy, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was lacking, to say the least.

But in a world in which social distancing is the norm and families can no longer come together, tools like Facebook's Portal have suddenly become important. Indeed, one of the things Facebook Portal is best at is facilitating simple communication with other Facebook users -- including family and friends.

Of course, you can also do that with Apple's FaceTime, Zoom, or other tools. But to its credit, Facebook Portal has made the process simpler and more fun, with the ability to use graphics and other components during conversations.

Facebook Portal, in other words, was designed for social distancing.

Who knew?

Published on: Mar 25, 2020
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