Amazon

Over a quarter of US adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, HomePod, smart speaker, smart speakers, smartphone, smartphones, Sonos, Speaker, TC, United States, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million — or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population — according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year — well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead, with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ, the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018, while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built-in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend toward voice computing and smart voice assistants — like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant — which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms — now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

Powered by WPeMatico

You can now ask Alexa to control your Roku devices

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, artificial intelligence, echo, Gadgets, Media, roku, Streaming Media, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice search | No Comments

Roku this morning announced its devices will now be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. Through a new Roku skill for Alexa, Roku owners will be able to control their devices in order to do things like launch a channel, play or pause a show, search for entertainment options and more. Roku TV owners will additionally be able to control various functions related to their television, like adjusting the volume, turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and changing channels if there is an over-the-air antenna attached.

The added support for Amazon Alexa will be available to devices running Roku OS 8.1 or higher, and will require that customers enable the new Roku skill, which will link their account to Amazon.

Roku has developed its own voice assistant designed specifically for its platform, which is available with a touch of a button on its voice remote as well as through optional accessories like its voice-powered wireless speakers, tabletop Roku Touch remote or TCL’s Roku-branded Smart Soundbar. However, it hasn’t ignored the needs of those who have invested in other voice platforms.

Already, Roku devices work with Google Assistant-powered devices, like Google Home and Google Home Mini, through a similar voice app launched last fall.

Support for the dominant streaming media platform — Amazon Alexa — was bound to be next. EMarketer said Amazon took two-thirds of smart speaker sales last year, and CIRP said Echo has a 70 percent U.S. market share.

The Roku app will work with any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, Echo Spot and Echo Plus, as well as those powered by Alexa from third parties, the company confirmed to TechCrunch.

Once enabled, you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, pause Roku,” or “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku,” or “Alexa, find comedies on Roku,” and more. The key will be starting the command with “Alexa,” as usual, then specify “Roku” is where the action should take place (e.g. “on Roku”).

One change with the launch of voice support via Alexa is that the commands are a bit more natural, in some cases. Whereas Google Assistant required users to say “Hey Google, pause on Roku,” the company today says the same command for Alexa users is “Alexa, pause Roku.” That’s a lot easier to remember and say. However, most of the other commands are fairly consistent between the two platforms.

“Consumers often have multiple voice ecosystems in their homes,” said Ilya Asnis, senior vice president of Roku OS at Roku, in a statement about the launch. “By allowing our customers to choose Alexa, in addition to Roku voice search and controls, and other popular voice assistants, we are strengthening the value Roku offers as a neutral platform in home entertainment.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Amazon stops selling stick-on Dash buttons

Posted by | Amazon, amazon dash, api, button, connected objects, Dash, dash button, Dash Replenishment, e-commerce, eCommerce, Gadgets, Germany, Internet of Things, IoT, voice assistant | No Comments

Amazon has confirmed it has retired physical stick-on Dash buttons from sale — in favor of virtual alternatives that let Prime Members tap a digital button to reorder a staple product.

It also points to its Dash Replenishment service — which offers an API for device makers wanting to build internet-connected appliances that can automatically reorder the products they need to function, be it cat food, batteries or washing power — as another reason why physical Dash buttons, which launched back in 2015 (costing $5 a pop), are past their sell-by date.

Amazon says “hundreds” of IoT devices capable of self-ordering on Amazon have been launched globally to date by brands including Beko, Epson, illy, Samsung and Whirlpool, to name a few.

So why press a physical button when a digital one will do? Or, indeed, why not do away with the need to push a button all and just let your gadgets rack up your grocery bill all by themselves while you get on with the importance business of consuming all the stuff they’re ordering?

You can see where Amazon wants to get to with its “so customers don’t have to think at all about restocking” line. Consumption that entirely removes the consumer’s decision-making process from the transactional loop is quite the capitalist wet dream. Though the company does need to be careful about consumer protection rules as it seeks to excise friction from the buying process.

The e-commerce behemoth also claims customers are “increasingly” using its Alexa voice assistant to reorder staples, such as via the Alexa Shopping voice shopping app (Amazon calls it “hands-free shopping”) that lets people inform the machine about a purchase intent and it will suggest items to buy based on their Amazon order history.

Albeit, it offers no actual usage metrics for Alexa Shopping. So that’s meaningless PR.

A less flashy but perhaps more popular option than “hands-free shopping,” which Amazon also says has contributed to making physical Dash buttons redundant, is its Subscribe & Save program.

This “lets customers automatically receive their favorite items every month,” as Amazon puts it. It offers an added incentive of discounts that kick in if the user signs up to buy five or more products per month. But the mainstay of the sales pitch is convenience with Amazon touting time saved by subscribing to “essentials” — and time saved from compiling boring shopping lists once again means more time to consume the stuff being bought on Amazon…

In a statement about retiring physical Dash buttons from global sale on February 28, Amazon also confirmed it will continue to support existing Dash owners — presumably until their buttons wear down to the bare circuit board from repeat use.

“Existing Dash Button customers can continue to use their Dash Button devices,” it writes. “We look forward to continuing support for our customers’ shopping needs, including growing our Dash Replenishment product line-up and expanding availability of virtual Dash Buttons.”

So farewell then clunky Dash buttons. Another physical push-button bites the dust. Though plastic-y Dash buttons were quite unlike the classic iPhone home button — always seeming temporary and experimental rather than slick and coolly reassuring. Even so, the end of both buttons points to the need for tech businesses to tool up for the next wave of contextually savvy connected devices. More smarts, and more controllable smarts is key.

Amazon’s statement about “shifting focus” for Dash does not mention potential legal risks around the buttons related to consumer rights challenges — but that’s another angle here.

In January a court in Germany ruled Dash buttons breached local e-commerce rules, following a challenge by a regional consumer watchdog that raised concerns about T&Cs that allow Amazon to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product entirely than what the consumer had originally selected. The watchdog argued consumers should be provided with more information about price and product before taking the order — and the judges agreed — though Amazon said it would seek to appeal.

While it’s not clear whether or not that legal challenge contributed to Amazon’s decision to shutter Dash, it’s clear that virtual Dash buttons offer more opportunities for displaying additional information prior to a purchase than a screen-less physical Dash button. They also are more easily adaptable to any tightening legal requirements across different markets.

The demise of the physical Dash was reported earlier by CNET.

Powered by WPeMatico

NetEase is the latest Chinese tech giant to lay off a big chunk of its staff

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, business, China, Didi Chuxing, e-commerce, eCommerce, Gaming, JD.com, layoff, netease, public relations, Southeast Asia, Tencent | No Comments

NetEase, China’s second-biggest online games publisher with a growing ecommerce segment, is laying off a significant number of its employees, adding to a list of Chinese tech giants that have shed staff following the Lunar New Year.

A NetEase employee who was recently let go confirmed with TechCrunch that the company had fired a large number of people spanning multiple departments, including ecommerce, education, agriculture (yes, founder and executive officer Ding Lei has a thing for organic farming) and public relations, although downsizing at Yanxuan, its ecommerce brand that sells private-label goods online and offline, had started before the Lunar New Year holiday.

Multiple Chinese media outlets covered the layoff on Wednesday. According to a report from Caijing Magazine, Yanxuan fired 30-40 percent of its staff; the agricultural brand Weiyang got a 50 percent cut; the education unit downsized from 300 to 200 employees; and 40 percent of NetEase’s public relations staff was gone.

A spokesperson from NetEase evaded TechCrunch’s questions about the layoff but said the company is “indeed undergoing a structural optimization to narrow its focus.” The goal, according to the person, is to “boost innovation and organizational efficiency so NetEase can fully play to its own strengths and adapt to market competition in the longer term.”

NetEase CEO Ding Lei pictured picking Longjing tea leaves in Hangzhou. Photo: NetEase Yanxuan via Weibo

Oddly, ecommerce and education appear to be some of NetEase’s brighter spots. The company singled them out alongside music streaming during its latest earnings call as the three sectors that saw “strong profit growth potential” and “will be the focus of [the company’s] next phase of strategic growth.” The staff cuts, then, may represent an urgency to tighten the purse strings for even NetEase’s rosiest businesses.

The shakeup fits into market speculation about company staff cuts to save costs as China copes with a weakening domestic economy. JD.com, a rival to Alibaba, is firing 10 percent of its senior management to cut costs, Caixin reported last week. Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing plans to let go 15 percent of its staff this year as part of a reorganization to boost internal efficiency, though it’s adding new members to focus on more promising segments.

Alibaba took an unexpected turn, announcing last week that it will continue to hire new talent in 2019. “We are poised to provide more resources to our platforms to help businesses navigate current environment and create more job opportunities overall,” the firm said in a statement.

2018 was a tough year for China’s games companies of all sorts. The industry took a hit after regulators froze all licensing approvals to go through a reshuffle, dragging down stock prices of big players like Tencent and NetEase. These companies continue to feel the chill even after approvals resumed, as the newly minted regulatory body imposes stricter checks on games, slowing down the application process altogether and delaying companies’ plans to monetize lucrative new titles.

That bleak domestic outlook compelled NetEase to take what Ding dubs a “two-legged” approach to game publishing, with one foot set in China and the other extending abroad. Tencent, too, has been finding new channels for its games through regional partners like Sea’s Garena in Southeast Asia.

NetEase started in 1997 and earned its name by making PC games and providing email services in the early years of the Chinese internet. More recently the company has intended to diversify its business by incubating projects across the board. It has so far enjoyed growth in segments like music streaming and ecommerce (which is reportedly swallowing up Amazon China’s import-led service) while stepping back from others such as comics publishing, an asset it is selling to youth-focused video streaming site Bilibili.

Powered by WPeMatico

Amazon, Western Union debut PayCode to sell goods in emerging markets and let shoppers pay in cash

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, developing markets, eCommerce, emerging markets, Finance, Mobile, payments, qr code, TC, western union | No Comments

While Amazon has been methodical (read: a little slow) in launching local versions of its site for various global markets, it has now embarked on a secondary track to snag more business outside the 14 countries where it has built out full operations.

Amazon has partnered with Western Union to set up a service called PayCode, which lets people shop and pay for Amazon items using local currencies that would not have been accepted on the site before, starting with services in 10 countries: Chile, Columbia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.

Specifically, shoppers in these markets will now be able to go into Western Union outposts and pay for their Amazon purchases in cash, which also means that payment cards or other virtual payment methods will also not be required to buy from Amazon — one of the barriers to expanding the service up to now into more emerging economies, where card and bank account penetration is much lower than in developed markets like the U.S. and Europe.

“Amazon is committed to enabling customers anywhere in the world to shop on Amazon.com, and a big part of that is to allow customers to pay for their cross-border online purchases in a way that is most convenient for them,” said Ben Volk, director, Payment Acceptance and Experience at Amazon, in a statement. “Amazon PayCode leverages the reach of Western Union to make cross-border online shopping a reliable and convenient experience for customers who do not have access to international credit cards, or prefer to pay in cash.”

In terms of what they will be able to buy, people can shop across the breadth of the Amazon marketplace, but Amazon notes that they will only be able to use PayCode if it’s offered as an option at checkout (which will only happen in the markets where PayCode is supported); if the item that is chosen is “export eligible,” and if the item’s value “exceeds the maximum value allowed for use on this payment type” — although Amazon doesn’t appear to specify what that maximum value is. Once you complete the purchase online (or possibly more likely, on mobile), you get a “PayCode” QR code that you will have 48 hours to take to a Western Union to pay for the goods; otherwise your order gets cancelled.

The deal between Amazon and Western Union was initially announced last October, with very little detail and fanfare. The PayCode name then appeared to leak out a month later around what appeared to be a test in India (where it has not launched… yet). Today was the first time that the companies unveiled the first launch countries.

PayCode is a significant advance for Amazon as it seeks to step up to the next level of being a global e-commerce powerhouse to compete against the likes of Alibaba.

The latter company has made a lot of inroads to work in a wider array of markets beyond its home base of China, specifically tapping into a long tail of supply from its home market and demand for those goods abroad. Alibaba is also taking care of business when it comes to making more seamless transactions related to those trades. Just today, its financial services affiliate Ant Financial announced that it would acquire U.K.’s WorldFirst, which provides foreign money transfer for businesses and individuals, for a price that we heard from sources was in the region of $700 million.

Amazon currently operates 15 Amazon websites globally: in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey. (It appears also to have a Prime-only site in Singapore.) Up to now, these would have been the only countries where Amazon would offer goods in local currencies.

Adding a new tranche of countries using PayCode will potentially massively expand how many people can shop on Amazon without Amazon going through the steps of setting up full-fledged operations in those countries to serve those consumers and sellers. (Or, this being Amazon, this would be a key way for the company to start testing the waters to figure out which market might do best with a full-fledged store.) Over time, you might imagine that Amazon might extend PayCode to markets where it has sites, too, to give shoppers more flexibility in how they pay for goods for themselves or that they are buying for others.

It’s a big market opportunity. Amazon cites estimates from Forrester Research that say cross-border shopping will represent 20 percent of e-commerce by 2022, accounting for $630 billion.

For Western Union, this is a potentially big partnership, too.

Today, PayCode allows people to use Western Union to act as a physical pay station for their Amazon goods, giving Western Union a small cut on those transactions. But you might imagine how this could evolve over time, where remittances sent from family members abroad via Western Union — a very common use of remittance networks — might immediately get redeemed to cover purchases on Amazon.

Similarly, Western Union is working closer with MPesa, the African mobile wallet service that lets people essentially use their phone top-up account as a payment account, and you could imagine how this too could get incorporated into the PayCode experience to facilitate buying and paying on devices, without having to go into Western Union shops and use actual cash.

“We’re helping to unlock access to Amazon.com for customers who need and want items that can only be found online in many parts of the world,” said Khalid Fellahi, SVP and General Manager of Western Union Digital, in a statement. “This is a great example of two global brands innovating and collaborating to bring customers more convenience and choice. In a world where cross-border buyers and sellers are often located on different continents and in completely different financial ecosystems, our platform is ideally suited to solving the complexity of collecting local currency and converting it into whatever currency merchants need on the other end.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Europe agrees platform rules to tackle unfair business practices

Posted by | Amazon, Android, antitrust, competition, e-commerce, eBay, EC, eCommerce, Europe, european commission, european parliament, european union, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, google search, Google Shopping, Margrethe Vestager, microsoft store, online marketplaces, online platforms, search engine, search engines, search results | No Comments

The European Union’s political institutions have reached agreement over new rules designed to boost transparency around online platform businesses and curb unfair practices to support traders and other businesses that rely on digital intermediaries for discovery and sales.

The European Commission proposed a regulation for fairness and transparency in online platform trading last April. And late yesterday the European Parliament, Council of the EU and Commission reached a political deal on regulating the business environment of platforms, announcing the accord in a press release today.

The political agreement paves the way for adoption and publication of the regulation, likely later this year. The rules will apply 12 months after that point.

Online platform intermediaries such as ecommerce marketplaces and search engines are covered by the new rules if they provide services to businesses established in the EU and which offer goods or services to consumers located in the EU.

The Commission estimates there are some 7,000 such platforms and marketplaces which will be covered by the regulation, noting this includes “world giants as well as very small start-ups”.

Under the new rules, sudden and unexpected account suspensions will be banned — with the Commission saying platforms will have to provide “clear reasons” for any termination and also possibilities for appeal.

Terms and conditions must also be “easily available and provided in plain and intelligible language”.

There must also be advance notice of changes — of at least 15 days, with longer notice periods applying for more complex changes.

For search engines the focus is on ranking transparency. And on that front dominant search engine Google has attracted more than its fair share of criticism in Europe from a range of rivals (not all of whom are European).

In 2017, the search giant was also slapped with a $2.7BN antitrust fine related to its price comparison service, Google Shopping. The EC found Google had systematically given prominent placement to its own search comparison service while also demoting rival services in search results. (Google rejects the findings and is appealing.)

Given the history of criticism of Google’s platform business practices, and the multi-year regulatory tug of war over anti-competitive impacts, the new transparency provisions look intended to make it harder for a dominant search player to use its market power against rivals.

Changing the online marketplace

The importance of legislating for platform fairness was flagged by the Commission’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, last summer — when she handed Google another very large fine ($5BN) for anti-competitive behavior related to its mobile platform Android.

Vestager said then she wasn’t sure breaking Google up would be an effective competition fix, preferring to push for remedies to support “more players to have a real go”, as her Android decision attempts to do. But she also stressed the importance of “legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

If businesses have legal means to find out why, for example, their traffic has stopped and what they can do to get it back that will “change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses”, she argued.

Just such a change is now in sight thanks to EU political accord on the issue.

The regulation represents the first such rules for online platforms in Europe and — commissioners’ contend — anywhere in the world.

“Our target is to outlaw some of the most unfair practices and create a benchmark for transparency, at the same time safeguarding the great advantages of online platforms both for consumers and for businesses,” said Andrus Ansip, VP for the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative in a statement.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship, and SMEs, added that the rules are “especially designed with the millions of SMEs in mind”.

“Many of them do not have the bargaining muscle to enter into a dispute with a big platform, but with these new rules they have a new safety net and will no longer worry about being randomly kicked off a platform, or intransparent ranking in search results,” she said in another supporting statement.

In a factsheet about the new rules, the Commission specifies they cover third-party ecommerce market places (e.g. Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Fnac Marketplace, etc.); app stores (e.g. Google Play, Apple App Store, Microsoft Store etc.); social media for business (e.g. Facebook pages, Instagram used by makers/artists etc.); and price comparison tools (e.g. Skyscanner, Google Shopping etc.).

The regulation does not target every online platform. For example, it does not cover online advertising (or b2b ad exchanges), payment services, SEO services or services that do not intermediate direct transactions between businesses and consumers.

The Commission also notes that online retailers that sell their own brand products and/or don’t rely on third party sellers on their own platform are also excluded from the regulation, such as retailers of brands or supermarkets.

Where transparency is concerned, the rules require that regulated marketplaces and search engines disclose the main parameters they use to rank goods and services on their site “to help sellers understand how to optimise their presence” — with the Commission saying the aim is to support sellers without allowing gaming of the ranking system.

Some platform business practices will also require mandatory disclosure — such as for platforms that not only provide a marketplace for sellers but sell on their platform themselves, as does Amazon for example.

The ecommerce giant’s use of merchant data remains under scrutiny in the EU. Vestager revealed a preliminary antitrust probe of Amazon last fall — when she said her department was gathering information to “try to get a full picture”. She said her concern is dual platforms could gain an unfair advantage as a consequence of access to merchants’ data.

And, again, the incoming transparency rules look intended to shrink that risk — requiring what the Commission couches as exhaustive disclosure of “any advantage” a platform may give to their own products over others.

“They must also disclose what data they collect, and how they use it — and in particular how such data is shared with other business partners they have,” it continues, noting also that: “Where personal data is concerned, the rules of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] apply.”

(GDPR of course places further transparency requirements on platforms by, for example, empowering individuals to request any personal data held on them, as well as the reasons why their information is being processed.)

The platform regulation also includes new avenues for dispute resolution by requiring platforms set up an internal complaint-handling system to assist business users.

“Only the smallest platforms in terms of head count or turnover will be exempt from this obligation,” the Commission notes. (The exemption limit is set at fewer than 50 staff and less than €10M revenue.)

It also says: “Platforms will have to provide businesses with more options to resolve a potential problem through mediators. This will help resolve more issues out of court, saving businesses time and money.”

But, at the same time, the new rules allow business associations to take platforms to court to stop any non-compliance — mirroring a provision in the GDPR which also allows for collective enforcement and redress of individual privacy rights (where Member States adopt it).

“This will help overcome fear of retaliation, and lower the cost of court cases for individual businesses, when the new rules are not followed,” the Commission argues.

“In addition, Member States can appoint public authorities with enforcement powers, if they wish, and businesses can turn to those authorities.”

One component of the regulation that appears to be being left up to EU Member States to tackle is penalties for non-compliance — with no clear regime of fines set out (as there is in GDPR). So it’s not clear whether the platform regulation might not have rather more bark than bite, at least initially.

“Member States shall need to take measures that are sufficiently dissuasive to ensure that the online intermediation platforms and search engines comply with the requirements in the Regulation,” the Commission writes in a section of its factsheet dealing with how to make sure platforms respect the new rules.

It also points again to the provision allowing business associations or organisations to take action in national courts on behalf of members — saying this offers a legal route to “stop or prohibit non-compliance with one or more of the requirements of the Regulation”. So, er, expect lawsuits.

The Commission says the rules will be subject to review within 18 months after they come into force — in a bid to ensure the regulation keeps pace with fast-paced tech developments.

A dedicated Online Platform Observatory has been established in the EU for the purpose of “monitoring the evolution of the market and the effective implementation of the rules”, it adds.

Powered by WPeMatico

Amazon looked to the past to build the future

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon buys Eero, Eero, Gadgets, Routers, smart home | No Comments

Over the last 20 years, smart home gadgets have evolved from fantasy to commodity. Walk into Best Buy and there are dozens of products that take just a few minutes to set up. It’s wonderful. Even better, it’s easy. There are lights and locks and screens from big and small companies alike. And therein lies the problem. There isn’t a unified solution for everything. Amazon’s vertically integrated offering could be the solution for the consumer and retail giant.

Sure, most smart home gadgets work, but nothing works well together. The smart home has to be as easy as flipping a switch to control a light bulb. Amazon’s purchase of the mesh Wi-Fi startup, Eero, speaks to the problem. Assembling a smart home containing more than a couple of smart gadgets is hard. There are countless spots where something can go wrong, exposing a smart home as nothing more than a house of cards.

What’s best for the average consumer is also the best for Amazon. In order for the smart home to be easy and functional as possible, one company should control the experience from every entry point. This is Apple’s approach to smartphones, and Apple has long offered the easiest, most secure smartphone experience.

In theory, Amazon will likely look to either bundle Eero routers with the purchase of Amazon Echos or build mesh networking into Echo products. Either way, Amazon is ensuring its Fire TV and Echo products can reliably access Amazon’s content services, which is where Amazon makes its money in the smart home.

As Devin explains, mesh networking is the solution to the problem created by Amazon’s push into every room. Wi-Fi is critical to a truly smart home, but there’s more to it. The smart home is complicated and it goes back over 20 years.

Before wireless networking was ubiquitous, hobbyists and luxury home builders turned to other solutions to add electronic features to homes. Some gadgets still use modern versions of these protocols. Services like Z-Wave and ZigBee allowed home security systems to wireless monitor entry points and control power to otherwise disconnected gadgets like coffee makers and lamps.

Later, competing wireless protocols competed with Z-Wave and ZigBee. Insteon came out in the early 2000s and offered redundant networking through RF signals and power line networking. In 2014, Nest, with the help of Samsung, Qualcomm, ARM and others, introduced Thread networking, which offers modern network redundancy and improved security. And there’s more! There are gadgets powered by Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi HaLow and line of sight IR signals.

This cluster of competing protocols makes it difficult to piece together a smart home that’s controlled by a unified device. So far, at this nascent stage of smart home gadgets, Amazon and Google have built a compelling case to use their products to control this bevy of devices.

Apple tried, and in some ways, succeeded. Its HomeKit framework put iOS devices as the central control point for the home. Want to turn on the lights? Click a button in iOS or, more recently, tell a HomePod. It works as advertised, but Apple requires compatible devices to be certified, and therefore the market of compatible devices is smaller than what works with an Amazon Echo.

Meanwhile, Goole and Amazon stepped into the smart home with their arms wide, seemingly willing to work with any gadget.

It worked. Over the last two years, gadget makers took huge steps to ensure its products are compatible with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Last month, at CES, this became a punchline when a toilet was announced that was compatible with Alexa.

Smart commodes be damned. All of these connected gadgets require their own setup process. Every connected light, thermostat and toilet demand the initial user be comfortable navigating several smartphone apps, knowing their network configuration and what to Google when something goes wrong — because things go wrong.

Amazon’s own Alexa app doesn’t help. The single app is loaded with several tentpole functions including voice calling, skill setup, remote operation and access to Alexa — it’s overwhelming and unwieldy once several Echos are configured under the same account.

Something has to change.

If the smart home is to reach new demographics, barriers have to be dropped and centralized control has to become paramount. A layman should be able to purchase a couple of voice control hubs, connected lights, and a thermostat and set them up through a single app even though the devices might use different networking methods.

Amazon has already taken a big step towards working with different smart home wireless protocols. In 2017 the company introduced the Echo Plus. This version of the Echo speaker included support for Zigbee (Philips Hue lights use Zigbee). Later, in 2018 the company upgraded the Echo Plus and included a temperature sensor and offline smart home networking so when the Internet goes down, the user can still control their connected products.

Amazon has a growing portfolio of smart home companies. Along with its own Echo products, Amazon owns Ring, a video doorbell company, Blink, a wireless video camera system, and recently purchased, Mr. Beams, an outdoor lighting company. Now, with Eero, it can offer buyers a WiFi solution by Amazon. The only thing missing is a unified experience between these devices.

In order for any company to win at the smart home, consumers need to fully trust this company and Amazon has so far only had several, relatively, minor incidents concerning the privacy of its users. A couple reports have surfaced reporting Amazon handing over voice data to the authorities. Other reports have taken issue with Amazon’s video doorbell company’s neighborhood watch system that could lead to profiling and discrimination.

Amazon can weather disparaging reports. Amazon cannot weather dysfunctional products unable to reach Amazon’s revenue-generating services.

Amazon is not alone in its quest for smart home domination. Google, Samsung, and Apple take this growing market seriously and will not let Amazon eat the whole pie. Consumer electronic giants will likely continue to scoop up smart home gadget companies that have traction with consumers. Look for companies like Arlo, ecobee, Belkin, Wyze Labs, sevenhugs and Brilliant to be acquired. These companies offer some of the best products in their respective fields and would compliment the companies currently owned by the big players as they look to offer consumers a the most complete experience.

Powered by WPeMatico

Another fine mesh

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon buys Eero, Eero, Gadgets, hardware, M&A, Opinion, Routers | No Comments

Amazon’s acquisition of mesh router company Eero is a smart play that adds a number of cards to its hand in the rapidly evolving smart home market. Why shouldn’t every router be an Echo, and every Echo be a router? Consolidating the two makes for powerful synergies and significant leverage against stubborn competition.

It’s no secret that Amazon wants to be in every room of the house — and on the front door to boot. It bought connected camera and doorbell companies Blink and Ring, and of course at its events it has introduced countless new devices from connected plugs to microwaves.

All these devices connect to each other, and the internet, wirelessly. Using what? Some router behind the couch, probably from Netgear or Linksys, with a 7-character model number and utilitarian look. This adjacent territory is the clear next target for expansion.

But Amazon could easily have moved into this with a Basics gadget years ago. Why didn’t it? Because it knew that it would have to surpass what’s on the market, not just in signal strength or build, but by changing the product into a whole new category.

The router is one of a dwindling number of devices left in the home that is still just a piece of “equipment.” Few people use their routers for anything but a basic wireless connection. Bits come and go through the cable and are relayed to the appropriate devices, mechanically and invisibly. It’s a device few think to customize or improve, if they think of it at all.

Apple made some early inroads with its overpriced and ultimately doomed Airport products, which served some additional purposes, like simple backups, and were also designed well enough to live on a table instead of under it. But it’s only recently that the humble wireless router has advanced beyond the state of equipment. It’s companies like Eero that did it, but it’s Amazon that’s made it realistic.

Build the demand, then sell the supply

It’s become clear that in many homes a single Wi-Fi router isn’t sufficient. Two or even three might be necessary to get the proper signal to the bedrooms upstairs and the workshop in the garage.

A few years ago this wasn’t even necessary, because there were far fewer devices that needed a wireless connection to work. But now if your signal doesn’t reach the front door, the lock won’t send a video of the mail carrier; if it doesn’t reach the garage, you can’t activate the opener for the neighbor; if it doesn’t reach upstairs, the kids come downstairs to watch TV — and we can’t have that.

A mesh system of multiple devices relaying signals is a natural solution, and one that’s been used for many years in other contexts. Eero was among the first not to create a system but to make a consumer play, albeit at the luxury level, rather like Sonos.

Google got in on the game relatively soon after that with the OnHub and its satellites, but neither company really seemed to crack the code. How many people do you know who have a mesh router system? Very few, I’d wager, likely vanishingly few when compared with ordinary router sales.

It seems clear now that the market wasn’t quite ready for the kind of investment and complexity that mesh networking necessitated. Amazon, however, solves that, because its mesh router will be an Echo, or an Echo Dot, or an Echo Show — all devices that are already found in multiple rooms of the house, and seem very likely to include some kind of mesh protocol in their next update.

It’s hard to say exactly how it will work, since a high-quality router necessarily has features and hardware that let it do its job. Adding these to an Echo product would be non-trivial. But it seems extremely likely that we can expect an Echo Hub or the like, which connects directly to your cable modem (it’s unlikely to perform that duty as well) and performs the usual router duties, while also functioning as an attractive multipurpose Alexa gadget.

That’s already a big step up from the ordinary spiky router. But the fun’s just getting started for Amazon.

Platform play

Apple has powerful synergies in its ecosystems, among which iMessage has to be the strongest. It’s the only reason I use an iPhone now; if Android got access to iMessage, I’d switch tomorrow. But I doubt it ever will, so here I am. Google has that kind of hold on search and advertising — just try to get away. And so on.

Amazon has a death grip on online retail, of course, but its naked thirst for an Amazon-populated smart home has been obvious since it took the smart step to open its Alexa platform up for practically anyone to ship with. The following Alexavalanche brought garbage from all corners of the world, and some good stuff too. But it shipped devices.

Now, any device will work with the forthcoming Echo-Eero hybrids. After all it will function as a perfectly ordinary router in some ways. But Amazon will be putting another layer on that interface specifically with Alexa and other Amazon devices. Imagine how simple the interface will be, how easily you’ll be able to connect and configure new smart home devices — that you bought on Amazon, naturally.

Sure, that non-Alexa baby cam will work, but like Apple’s genius blue and green bubbles, some indicator will make it clear that this device, while perfectly functional, is, well, lacking. A gray, generic device image instead of a bright custom icon or live view from your Amazon camera, perhaps. It’s little things like that that change minds, especially when Amazon is undercutting the competition via subsidized prices.

Note that this applies to expanding the network as well — other Amazon devices (the Dot and its ilk) will likely not only play nice with the hub but will act as range extenders and perform other tasks like file transfers, intercom duty, throwing video, etc. Amazon is establishing a private intranet in your house.

The rich data interplay of smart devices will soon become an important firehose. How much power is being used? How many people are at home and when? What podcasts are being listened to, at what times, and by whom? When did that UPS delivery actually get to the door? Amazon already gets much of this but building a mesh network gives it greater access and allows it to set the rules, in effect. It’s a huge surface area through which to offer services and advertisements, or to preemptively meet users’ needs.

Snooping ain’t easy (or wise)

One thing that deserves a quick mention is the possibility, as it will seem to some, that Amazon will snoop on your internet traffic if you use its router. I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that it’s not only technically very difficult but very unwise to snoop at that level. Any important traffic going through the router will be encrypted, for one thing. And it wouldn’t be much of an advantage to Amazon anyway. The important data on you is generated by your interactions with Amazon: items you browse, shows you watch, and so on. Snatching random browsing data would be invasive and weird, with very little benefit.

Eero addressed the question directly shortly after the acquisition was announced:

Hi Steve! eero and Amazon take customer privacy very seriously and we will continue to protect it. eero does not track customers’ internet activity and this policy will not change with the acquisition.

— eero support 👋 (@eerosupport) February 11, 2019

Maybe they would have eventually as a last-ditch effort to monetize, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now the bad news. You don’t want Amazon to see your traffic? Too bad! Most of the internet runs on AWS! If Amazon really cared, it could probably do all kinds of bad stuff that way. But again it would be foolish self-sabotage.

Free-for-all

What happens next is an arms race, though it seems to me that Amazon might have already won. Google took its shot and may be once bitten, twice shy; its smart home presence isn’t nearly so large, either. Apple got out of the router game because there’s not much money in it; it won’t care if someone uses an Apple Homepod (what a name) with an Amazon router.

Huawei and Netgear already have Alexa-enabled routers, but they can’t offer the level of deep integration Amazon can; there’s no doubt the latter will reserve many interesting features for its own branded devices.

Linksys, TP-Link, Asus, and other OEMs serving the router space may blow this off to start as a toy, though it seems more likely that they will lean on the specs and utilitarian nature to push it with budget and performance markets, leaving Amazon to dominate a sliver… and hope that sliver doesn’t grow into a wedge.

One place you may see interesting competition is from someone leaning on the privacy angle. Although we’ve established that Amazon isn’t likely to use the device that way, the fear doesn’t have to be justified for it to be taken advantage of in advertising. And anyway there are other features like robust ad blocking and so on that, say, a Mozilla-powered open source router could make a case for.

But it seems likely that by acquiring an advanced but beleaguered startup that was ahead of the market, Amazon will be able to make a quick entry and multiply while the others are still engineering their responses.

Expect specials on Eeros while stock lasts, then a new wave of mesh-enabled Echo-branded devices that are backwards compatible, mega-simple to set up, and more than competitive on price. Now is the time and the living room is the place; Amazon will strike hard and perhaps it will set in motion the end of the router as mere equipment.

Powered by WPeMatico

Foxconn pulls back on its $10 billion factory commitment

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, China, Foxconn, Gaming, Government, india, Kakao, korea, Media, nexon, Policy, wisconsin | No Comments

Well that didn’t last long.

In 2017, Foxconn announced the largest investment of a foreign company in the United States when it selected Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin for a new manufacturing facility. Buttressed by huge economic development grants from Wisconsin, an endorsement from President Trump, and Foxconn CEO Terry Gou’s vision of a maker America, the plant was designed to turn a small town and its environs into the futuristic “Wisconn Valley.”

Now, those dreams are coming apart faster than you can say “Made in America.”

In an interview with Reuters, a special assistant to Gou says that those plans are being remarkably scaled back. Originally designed to be an advanced LCD factory, the new Foxconn facility will instead be a much more modest (but still needed!) research center for engineers.

It’s a huge loss for Wisconsin, but the greater shock may be just how obvious all of this was. I wrote about the boondoggle just a few weeks ago, as had Bruce Murphy at The Verge a few weeks before that. Sruthi Pinnamaneni produced an excellent podcast on Reply All about how much the economic development of Mount Pleasant tore the small town asunder.

The story in short: the economics of the factory never made sense, and economics was always going to win over the hopes and dreams of politicians like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who championed the deal. Despite bells and whistles, televisions are a commodity product (unlike, say, airfoils), and thus the cost structure is much more compatible with efficient Asian supply chains than with American expensive labor.

Yet, that wasn’t the only part of the project that never made any sense. Foxconn was building in what was essentially the middle of nowhere, without the sort of dense ecosystem of suppliers and sub-suppliers required for making a major factory hum. (Plus, as a native of Minnesota, I can also attest that Wisconsin is a pile of garbage).

Those suppliers are everything for manufacturers. Just this past weekend, Jack Nicas at the New York Times observed that Apple’s advanced manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas struggled to find the right parts it needed to assemble its top-of-the-line computer, the Mac Pro:

But when Apple began making the $3,000 computer in Austin, Tex., it struggled to find enough screws, according to three people who worked on the project and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.

In China, Apple relied on factories that can produce vast quantities of custom screws on short notice. In Texas, where they say everything is bigger, it turned out the screw suppliers were not.

There are of course huge manufacturing ecosystems in the United States — everything from cars in Detroit, to planes in Washington, to advanced medical devices in several major bio-hubs. But consumer electronics is one that has for the most part been lost to Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and of course, China.

Geopolitically, Foxconn’s factory made a modicum of sense. With the increasing protectionism emanating from Western capitals, Foxconn could have used some geographical diversity in the event of a tariff fight. The company is Taiwanese, but manufacturers many of its products on the mainland.

And of course, a research center is still an enormous gain for a region of Wisconsin that could absolutely use high-income, professional jobs. Maybe the process of rolling out a next-generation manufacturing ecosystem will take more time than originally anticipated, but nothing is stopping further expansion in the future.

Yet, one can’t help but gaze at the remarkable naïveté of Wisconsin politicians who offered billions only to find that even massive subsidies aren’t enough. It’s a competitive world out there, and the United States has little experience in these fights.

India may put friction on foreign firms to protect domestic startups

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the major battles for tech supremacy is over the future of the Indian IT market, which is rapidly bringing more than a billion people onto the internet and giving them robust software services. I’ve talked a bit about data sovereignty, which mandates that Indian data be stored in Indian data centers by Indian companies, pushing out foreign companies like Amazon, Google, and Alibaba.

Now, it looks like India is taking a page from the Asian tiger-school of development, and is going to increasingly favor domestic firms over foreign ones in key industries. Newley Purnell and Rajesh Roy report in the WSJ:

The secretary of India’s Telecommunications Department, Aruna Sundararajan, last week told a gathering of Indian startups in a closed-door meeting in the tech hub of Bangalore that the government will introduce a “national champion” policy “very soon” to encourage the rise of Indian companies, according to a person familiar with the matter. She said Indian policy makers had noted the success of China’s internet giants, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. , the person said. She didn’t immediately respond to a request for more details on the program or its timing.

The idea of national champions is simple. Unlike the innovation world of Silicon Valley, there are obvious sectors in an economy that need to be fulfilled. Food and clothes have to be sold, deliveries made, all kinds of industrial goods need to be built. Rather than creating a competitive market that requires high levels of duplicate capital investment, the government can designate a few companies to take the lead in each market to ensure that they can invest for growth rather than in, say, marketing costs.

If done well, such policies can rapidly industrialize a country’s economic base. When done poorly, the lack of competition can create lethargy among entrepreneurs, who have already won their markets without even trying.

The linchpin is whether the government pushes companies to excel and sets aggressive growth targets. In Korea and China, the central governments actively monitored corporate growth during their catch-up years, and transferred businesses to new entrepreneurs if business leaders failed to perform. Can India push its companies as hard without market forces?

As the technology industry matures in the West, entrepreneurs will look for overseas as their future growth hubs. The challenge is whether they will be let in at all.

Video game geopolitics

Nexon’s MapleStory2 game is one of its most profitable (Screenshot from Nexon) .

Korea and Japan are two of the epicenters of the video game industry, and now one of its top companies is on the auction block, raising tough questions about media ownership.

Nexon founder Kim Jung Ju announced a few weeks ago that he was intending to sell all of his controlling $9 billion stake in the leading video game company. The company has since executed something of a multi-stage auction process to determine who should buy those shares. One leading candidate we’ve learned is Kakao, the leading internet portal and chatting app in Korea.

The other leading candidate is China-based Tencent, which owns exclusive distribution rights in China of some of Nexon’s most important titles.

Tencent has been increasingly under the sway of China’s government, which froze video game licensing last year as it worked to increase content regulation over the industry. Now the question is whether it will be politically palatable to sell a leading star of Korea’s video game industry to its economic rival.

From the Financial Times:

Mr Wi added that Nexon would be an attractive target for Tencent, which pays about Won1tn in annual royalties to the South Korean game developer. But selling the company to Tencent would be “politically burdensome” for Mr Kim, given unfavourable public opinion in South Korea towards such a sale, he cautioned.

“Political risks are high for the deal. Being criticised for selling the company to a foreign rival, especially a Chinese one, would be the last thing that Mr Kim wants,” said Mr Wi.

Such concerns around Chinese media ownership have become acute throughout the world, but we haven’t seen these concerns as much in the video game industry. Clearly, times have changed.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney

My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey and also spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

What’s Next

  • More work on societal resilience

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

Powered by WPeMatico

Amazon has paused sales of its Echo Wall Clock due to connectivity issues

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, clock, computing, Gadgets, microwave, Publishing, TC, world wide web | No Comments

Amazon launched an Echo Wall Clock before the end of last year but, less than a month later, things aren’t running to schedule. The e-commerce giant has paused the sale of the $30 Alexa-powered smart clock after a number of customers reported connectivity issues, according to The Verge.

The clock is still listed on Amazon but, as of Tuesday, it is “currently unavailable.”

“We’re aware that a small number of customers have had issues with connectivity. We’re working hard to address this and plan to make Echo Wall Clock available again in the coming weeks,” Amazon told The Verge in a statement.

The clock is pitched at existing Alexa users who could use it to set timers, countdowns or alarms, while it automatically adjusts to seasonal time changes. It is unashamedly basic, both in design as well as functionality, but it is an interesting addition to Amazon’s expanding home appliance push. That also includes an Alexa microwave (less impressive), a singing fish (ok…) along the more established cast of home speakers, the “Show” video screen, a subwoofer and more.

Powered by WPeMatico