Amazon Alexa goes AWOL for many users

Amazon Alexa goes AWOL for many users
Some Amazon Alexa users are currently having problems reaching the voice assistant. Instead of reacting to commands, Alexa simply says “sorry, something went wrong.” Amazon hasn’t commented publicly yet on the issue.
Based on tweets and Down Detector, users began having trouble reaching Alexa around 7AM PST. While some had their connection issues resolved quickly, many others are still waiting.

#AlexaDown ! Now I have to remember how to turn the lights on and off again!
— Erin Boyle (@erinboyle05) October 24, 2018

@amazonecho what’s up with Alexa? She seems under the weather. #alexadown #alexanotrreliable
— Holly Ross Tong (@USAHollyRT) October 24, 2018

I would like to apologize to #alexa users worldwide for the 80 times my 6 year old requested “what does the fox say” today which surely caused the outage. She was right to shut down. Enough is enough. I hope @amazon can fix her. #alexadown
— Amy Gail (@AmyGail8) October 24, 2018

This follows an outage last month that mainly affected Echo devices in parts of the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, and Australia. According to Down Detector’s outage map, however, most of the users who currently can’t reach Alexa are in the United States.

Alexa also suffered an outage in March after an Amazon Web Services networking issue.
TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Smart home tech makers don’t want to say if the feds come for your data

Smart home tech makers don’t want to say if the feds come for your data
A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that nearly every household item could be hooked up to the internet. These days, it’s near impossible to avoid a non-smart home gadget, and they’re vacuuming up a ton of new data that we’d never normally think about.
Thermostats know the temperature of your house, and smart cameras and sensors know when someone’s walking around your home. Smart assistants know what you’re asking for, and smart doorbells know who’s coming and going. And thanks to the cloud, that data is available to you from anywhere — you can check in on your pets from your phone or make sure your robot vacuum cleaned the house.
Because the data is stored or accessible by the smart home tech makers, law enforcement and government agencies have increasingly sought data from the companies to solve crimes.
And device makers won’t say if your smart home gadgets have been used to spy on you.
For years, tech companies have published transparency reports — a semi-regular disclosure of the number of demands or requests a company gets from the government for user data. Google was first in 2010. Other tech companies followed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government had enlisted tech companies’ aid in spying on their users. Even telcos, implicated in wiretapping and turning over Americans’ phone records, began to publish their figures to try to rebuild their reputations.
As the smart home revolution began to thrive, police saw new opportunities to obtain data where they hadn’t before. Police sought Echo data from Amazon to help solve a murder. Fitbit data was used to charge a 90-year old man with the murder of his stepdaughter. And recently, Nest was compelled to turn over surveillance footage that led to gang members pleading guilty to identity theft.
Yet, Nest — a division of Google — is the only major smart home device maker that has published how many data demands it receives.
As first noted by Forbes last week, Nest’s little-known transparency report doesn’t reveal much — only that it’s turned over user data about 300 times since mid-2015 on over 500 Nest users. Nest also said it hasn’t to date received a secret order for user data on national security grounds, such as in cases of investigating terrorism or espionage. Nest’s transparency report is woefully vague compared to some of the more detailed reports by Apple, Google and Microsoft, which break out their data requests by lawful request, by region and often by the kind of data the government demands.
As Forbes said, “a smart home is a surveilled home.” But at what scale?
We asked some of the most well-known smart home makers on the market if they plan to release a transparency report, or disclose the number of demands they receive for data from their smart home devices.
For the most part, we received fairly dismal responses.
What the big four tech giants said
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment when asked if it will break out the number of demands it receives for Echo data, but a spokesperson told me last year that while its reports include Echo data, it would not break out those figures.
Facebook said that its transparency report section will include “any requests related to Portal,” its new hardware screen with a camera and a microphone. Although the device is new, a spokesperson did not comment on if the company will break out the hardware figures separately.
Google pointed us to Nest’s transparency report but did not comment on its own efforts in the hardware space — notably its Google Home products.
And Apple said that there’s no need to break out its smart home figures — such as its HomePod — because there would be nothing to report. The company said user requests made to HomePod are given a random identifier that cannot be tied to a person.
What the smaller but notable smart home players said
August, a smart lock maker, said it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA),” but did not comment on the number of subpoenas, warrants and court orders it receives. “August does comply with all laws and when faced with a court order or warrant, we always analyze the request before responding,” a spokesperson said.
Roomba maker iRobot said it “has not received any demands from governments for customer data,” but wouldn’t say if it planned to issue a transparency report in the future.
Both Arlo, the former Netgear smart home division, and Signify, formerly Philips Lighting, said they do not have transparency reports. Arlo didn’t comment on its future plans, and Signify said it has no plans to publish one. 
Ring, a smart doorbell and security device maker, did not answer our questions on why it doesn’t have a transparency report, but said it “will not release user information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us” and that Ring “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” When pressed, a spokesperson said it plans to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when.
Spokespeople for Honeywell and Canary — both of which have smart home security products — did not comment by our deadline.
And, Samsung, a maker of smart sensors, trackers and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, did not respond to a request for comment.
Only Ecobee, a maker of smart switches and sensors, said it plans to publish its first transparency report “at the end of 2018.” A spokesperson confirmed that, “prior to 2018, Ecobee had not been requested nor required to disclose any data to government entities.”
All in all, that paints a fairly dire picture for anyone thinking that when the gadgets in your home aren’t working for you, they could be helping the government.
As helpful and useful as smart home gadgets can be, few fully understand the breadth of data that the devices collect — even when we’re not using them. Your smart TV may not have a camera to spy on you, but it knows what you’ve watched and when — which police used to secure a conviction of a sex offender. Even data from when a murder suspect pushed the button on his home alarm key fob was enough to help convict someone of murder.
Two years ago, former U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper said the government was looking at smart home devices as a new foothold for intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance. And it’s only going to become more common as the number of internet-connected devices spread. Gartner said more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020.
As much as the chances are that the government is spying on you through your internet-connected camera in your living room or your thermostat are slim — it’s naive to think that it can’t.
But the smart home makers wouldn’t want you to know that. At least, most of them.

‘Five Eyes’ governments call on tech giants to build encryption backdoors — or else

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent

Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent
If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture.
The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making.
Meet the ‘Made by Google’ Home Hub.
Buy into the smart home, the smart consumer might think, and you’re going to be stuck shelling out again and again — just to keep on top of managing an ever-expanding gaggle of high maintenance devices.
Which does sound quite a lot like throwing good money after bad. Unless you’re a true believer in the concept of gadget-enabled push-button convenience — and the perpetually dangled claim that smart home nirvana really is just around the corner. One additional device at a time. Er, and thanks to AI!
Yesterday, at Google’s event, there didn’t seem to be any danger of nirvana though.
Not unless paying $150 for a small screen lodged inside a speaker is your idea of heaven. (i.e. after you’ve shelled out for all the other connected devices that will form the spokes chained to this control screen.)
A small tablet that, let us be clear, is defined by its limitations: No standard web browser, no camera… No, it’s not supposed to be an entertainment device in its own right.
It’s literally just supposed to sit there and be a visual control panel — with the usual also-accessible-on-any-connected-device type of content like traffic, weather and recipes. So $150 for a remote control doesn’t sound quite so cheap now does it?
The hub doubling as a digital photo frame when not in active use — which Google made much of — isn’t some kind of ‘magic pixie’ sales dust either. Call it screensaver 2.0.
A fridge also does much the same with a few magnets and bits of paper. Just add your own imagination.
During the presentation, Google made a point of stressing that the ‘evolving’ smart home it was showing wasn’t just about iterating on the hardware front — claiming its Google’s AI software is hard at work in the background, hand-in-glove with all these devices, to really ‘drive the vision forward’.
But if the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory.
Google also made a point of referencing concerns it said it’s heard from a large majority of users that they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, saying: “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being.”
Yet it said this at an event where it literally unboxed yet another clutch of connected, demanding, function-duplicating devices — that are also still, let’s be clear, just as hungry for your data — including the aforementioned tablet-faced speaker (which Google somehow tried to claim would help people “disconnect” from all their smart home tech — so, basically, ‘buy this device so you can use devices less’… ); a ChromeOS tablet that transforms into a laptop via a snap-on keyboard; and 2x versions of its new high end smartphone, the Pixel 3.
There was even a wireless charging Pixel Stand that props the phone up in a hub-style control position. (Oh and Google didn’t even have time to mention it during the cluttered presentation but there’s this Disney co-branded Mickey Mouse-eared speaker for kids, presumably).
What’s the average consumer supposed to make of all this incestuously overlapping, wallet-badgering hardware?!
Smartphones at least have clarity of purpose — by being efficiently multi-purposed.
Increasingly powerful all-in-ones that let you do more with less and don’t even require you to buy a new one every year vs the smart home’s increasingly high maintenance and expensive (in money and attention terms) sprawl, duplication and clutter. And that’s without even considering the security risks and privacy nightmare.
The two technology concepts really couldn’t be further apart.
If you value both your time and your money the smartphone is the one — the only one — to buy into.
Whereas the smart home clearly needs A LOT of finessing — if it’s to ever live up to the hyped claims of ‘seamless convenience’.
Or, well, a total rebranding.
The ‘creatively chaotic & experimental gadget lovers’ home would be a more honest and realistic sell for now — and the foreseeable future.
Instead Google made a pitch for what it dubbed the “thoughtful home”. Even as it pushed a button to pull up a motorised pedestal on which stood clustered another bunch of charge-requiring electronics that no one really needs — in the hopes that consumers will nonetheless spend their time and money assimilating redundant devices into busy domestic routines. Or else find storage space in already overflowing drawers.
The various iterations of ‘smart’ in-home devices in the market illustrate exactly how experimental the entire  concept remains.
Just this week, Facebook waded in with a swivelling tablet stuck on a smart speaker topped with a camera which, frankly speaking, looks like something you’d find in a prison warden’s office.
Google, meanwhile, has housed speakers in all sorts of physical forms, quite a few of which resemble restroom scent dispensers — what could it be trying to distract people from noticing?
And Amazon now has so many Echo devices it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s as if the ecommerce giant is just dropping stones down a well to see if it can make a splash.
During the smart home bits of Google’s own-brand hardware pitch, the company’s parade of presenters often sounded like they were going through robotic motions, failing to muster anything more than baseline enthusiasm.
And failing to dispel a strengthening sense that the smart home is almost pure marketing, and that sticking update-requiring, wired in and/or wireless devices with variously overlapping purposes all over the domestic place is the very last way to help technology-saturated consumers achieve anything close to ‘disconnected well-being’.
Incremental convenience might be possible, perhaps — depending on which and how few smart home devices you buy; for what specific purpose/s; and then likely only sporadically, until the next problematic update topples the careful interplay of kit and utility. But the idea that the smart home equals thoughtful domestic bliss for families seems farcical.
All this updatable hardware inevitably injects new responsibilities and complexities into home life, with the conjoined power to shift family dynamics and relationships — based on things like who has access to and control over devices (and any content generated); whose jobs it is to fix things and any problems caused when stuff inevitably goes wrong (e.g. a device breakdown OR an AI-generated snafu like the ‘wrong’ photo being auto-displayed in a communal area); and who will step up to own and resolve any disputes that arise as a result of all the Internet connected bits being increasingly intertwined in people’s lives, willingly or otherwise.
Hey Google, is there an AI to manage all that yet?

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Google’s latest hardware innovation: Price

Google’s latest hardware innovation: Price
With its latest consumer hardware products, Google’s prices are undercutting Apple, Samsung and Amazon. The search giant just unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, tablet and smart home device, all available at prices well below their direct competitors. Where Apple and Samsung are pushing prices of its latest products even higher, Google is seemingly happy to keep prices low, and this is creating a distinct advantage for the company’s products.
Google, like Amazon and nearly Apple, is a services company that happens to sell hardware. It needs to acquire users through multiple verticals, including hardware. Somewhere, deep in the Googleplex, a team of number-crunchers decided it made more sense to make its hardware prices dramatically lower than competitors. If Google is taking a loss on the hardware, it is likely making it back through services.
Amazon does this with Kindle devices. Microsoft and Sony do it with game consoles. This is a proven strategy to increase market share where the revenue generated on the back end recovers the revenue lost on selling hardware with slim or negative margins.
Look at the Pixel 3. The base 64GB model is available for $799, while the base 64GB iPhone XS is $999. Want a bigger screen? The 64GB Pixel 3 XL is $899, and the 64GB iPhone XS Max is $1,099. Regarding the specs, both phones offer OLED displays and amazing cameras. There are likely pros and cons regarding the speed of the SoC, amount of RAM and wireless capabilities. Will consumers care that the screen and camera are so similar? Probably not.
Google also announced the Home Hub today. Like the Echo Show, it’s designed to be the central part of a smart home. It puts Google Assistant on a fixed screen where users can ask it questions and control a smart home. It’s $149. That’s $80 less than the Echo Show, though the Google version lacks video conferencing and a dedicated smart home hub — the Google Home Hub requires extra hardware for some smart home objects. Still, even with fewer features, the Home Hub is compelling because of its drastically lower price. For just a few dollars more than an Echo Show, a buyer could get a Home Hub and two Home Minis.
The Google Pixel Slate is Google’s answer to the iPad Pro. From everything we’ve seen, it appears to lack a lot of the processing power found in Apple’s top tablet. It doesn’t seem as refined or capable of specific tasks. But for view media, creating content and playing games, it feels just fine. It even has a Pixelbook Pen and a great keyboard that shows Google is positioning this against the iPad Pro. And the 12.3-inch Pixel Slate is available for $599, where the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is $799.
The upfront price is just part of the equation. When considering the resale value of these devices, a different conclusion can be reached. Apple products consistently resale for more money than Google products. On Gazelle.com, a company that buys used smartphones, a used iPhone X is worth $425, whereas a used Pixel 2 is $195. A used iPhone 8, a phone that sold for a price closer to the Pixel 2, is worth $240.
In the end, Google likely doesn’t expect to make money off the hardware it sells. It needs users to buy into its services. The best way to do that is to make the ecosystem competitive though perhaps not investing the capital to make it the best. It needs to be just good enough, and that’s how I would describe these devices. Good enough to be competitive on a spec-to-spec basis while available for much less.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL up close and hands-on

The Pixel 3’s best new features

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal

Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal
The war for the countertop has begun. Google, Amazon and Facebook all revealed their new smart displays this month. Each hopes to become the center of your Internet of Things-equipped home and a window to your loved ones. The $149 Google Home Hub is a cheap and privacy-safe smart home controller. The $229 Amazon Echo Show 2 gives Alexa a visual complement. And the $199 Facebook Portal and $349 Portal+ offer a Smart Lens that automatically zooms in and out to keep you in frame while you video chat.
For consumers, the biggest questions to consider are how much you care about privacy, whether you really video chat, which smart home ecosystem you’re building around and how much you want to spend.

For the privacy obsessed, Google’s Home Hub is the only one without a camera and it’s dirt cheap at $149.
For the privacy agnostic, Facebook’s Portal+ offers the best screen and video chat functionality.
For the chatty, Amazon Echo Show 2 can do message and video chat over Alexa, call phone numbers and is adding Skype.

If you want to go off-brand, there’s also the Lenovo Smart Display, with stylish hardware in a $249 10-inch 1080p version and a $199 8-inch 720p version. And for the audiophile, there’s the $199 JBL Link View. While those hit the market earlier than the platform-owned versions we’re reviewing here, they’re not likely to benefit from the constant iteration Google, Amazon and Facebook are working on for their tabletop screens.
Here’s a comparison of the top smart displays, including their hardware specs, unique software, killer features and pros and cons:

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Alexa is reported down across Europe

Alexa is reported down across Europe
Reports are coming in that Amazon’s Alexa service is down in parts of UK, Spain, Germany and Austria. According to Down Detector and Twitter, the problem started surfacing around 8am local time and still continues. Interestingly, some users are reporting the issue is isolated to Echo Dot 2 models and while other Echo devices are still working. Sometimes. Other reports say everything is down. When users try to talk to their Echo devices, Alexa will report an error with connectivity and spin a red ring around the top.
Because of this outage, users will have to use wall switches to turn on lights, press buttons to make coffee and look outside to assess the weather. Sucks. I know.
As Engadget points out in their coverage, the outage could stem from Amazon Web Service issues at the company’s Ireland facility. Amazon is now reporting that those issues have been resolved so there’s a chance Alexa will be coming back online shortly.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Technology doesn’t have to be disposable

Technology doesn’t have to be disposable
Dust off your old Bose 501 speakers. New devices are coming that will give traditional audio equipment a voice.
Amazon recently announced a mess of new Echo devices and among the lot are several small, diminutive add-ons. These models did not have a smart speaker built into the devices but rather turned other speakers into smart speakers.
Sonos has a similar device. Called the Sonos Amp, the device connects the Sonos service to audio receivers and can drive traditional speakers. There’s a new version coming out in 2019 that adds Alexa and AirPlay 2.
This movement back towards traditional speaker systems could be a boon for audio companies reeling from the explosion of smart speakers. Suddenly, consumers do not have to choose between the ease of use in an inexpensive smart speaker and the vastly superior audio quality of a pair of high-end speakers. Consumers can have voice services and listen to Cake, too.
Echo devices are everywhere in my house. They’re in three bedrooms, my office, our living room, my workshop and outside on the deck. But besides the Tap in the workshop and Echo in the kitchen, every Echo is connected to an amp and speakers. For instance, in my office, I have an Onkyo receiver and standalone Onkyo amp that powers a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers. The bedrooms have various speakers connected to older A/V receivers. Outside there’s a pair of Yamaha speakers powered by cheap mini-amp. Each system sounds dramatically better than any smart speaker available.
There’s a quiet comfort in building an audio system: To pick out each piece and connect everything; to solder banana clips to speaker wire and ensure the proper power is flowing to each speaker.
Amazon and Google built one of the best interfaces for audio in Alexa and Google Assistant. But that could change in the future. In the end, Alexa and Google Assistant are just another component in an audio stack, and to some consumers, it makes sense to treat them as a turntable or equalizer — a part that can be swapped out in the future.
The world of consumer electronics survives because of the disposable nature of gadgets. There’s always something better coming soon. Cell phones last a couple of years and TVs last a few years longer. But bookshelf speakers purchased today will still sound great in 20 years.
There’s a thriving secondary market for vintage audio equipment, and unlike old computer equipment, buyers want this gear actually to use it.
If you see a pair of giant Bose speakers at a garage sale, buy them and use them. Look at the prices for used Bose 901 speakers: they’re the cost of three Apple HomePods. Look at ShopGoodwill.com — Goodwill’s fantastic auction site. It’s filled with vintage audio equipment with some pieces going for multiple thousands of dollars. Last year’s smart speakers are on there, too, available for pennies on the dollar.
For the most part, audio equipment will last generations. Speakers can blow and wear out. Amps can get hit by surges and components can randomly fail. It happens, but most of the time, speakers survive.
This is where Amazon and Sonos come in. Besides selling standalone speakers, both companies have products available that adds services to independent speaker systems. A person doesn’t have to ditch their Pioneer stack to gain access to Alexa. They have to plug in a new component, and in the future, if something better is available, that component can be swapped out for something else.
Amazon first introduced this ability in the little Echo Dot. The $50 speaker has a 3.5mm output that makes it easy to add to a speaker system. A $35 version is coming soon that lacks the speaker found in the Dot and features a 3.5mm output. It’s set to be the easiest and cheapest way to add voice services to speakers.
Amazon and Sonos also have higher-end components nearing release. The Amazon Echo Link features digital and discrete audio outputs that should result in improved audio. The Amazon Echo Amp adds an amplifier to power a set of passive speakers directly. Sonos offers something similar in the upcoming Sonos Amp with 125 watts per channel and HDMI to allow it to be connected to a TV.
These add-on products give consumers dramatically more options than a handful of plastic smart speakers.
There are several ways to take advantage of these components. The easiest is to look at powered speakers. These speakers have built-in amplifiers and unlike traditional speakers, plug into an outlet for power. Look at models from Edifier, Klipsch or Yamaha. Buyers just need to connect a few cables to have superior sound to most smart speakers.
Another option is to piece together a component system. Pick any A/V receiver and add a couple of speakers and a subwoofer. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Small $30 amps like from Lepy or Pyle can drive a set of speakers — that’s what I use to drive outdoor speakers. Or, look at Onkyo or Denon A/V surround sound receivers and build a home theater system and throw in an Amazon Echo Link on top. As for speakers Polk, Klipsch, Definitive Technology, KEF, B&W, and many more produce fantastic speakers that will still work years after Amazon stops making Echo devices.
Best of all, both options are modular and allows owners to modify the system overtime. Want to add a turntable? Just plug it in. That’s not possible with a Google Home.
Technology doesn’t have to be disposable.
These add-on products offer the same solution as Roku or Fire TV devices — just plug in this device to add new tricks to old gear. When it gets old, don’t throw out the TV (or in this case speakers), just plug in the latest dongle.
Sure, it’s easy to buy a Google Home Max, and the speaker sounds great, too. For some people, it’s the perfect way to get Spotify in their living space. It’s never been easier to listen to music or NPR.
There are a few great options for smart speakers. The $350 Apple HomePod sounds glorious though Siri lacks a lot of smarts of Alexa or Google Assistant. I love the Echo Dot for its utility and price point, and in a small space, it sounds okay. For my money, the best smart speaker is the Sonos One. It sounds great, is priced right, and Sonos has the best ecosystem available.
I’m excited about Amazon’s Echo and Sub bundle. For $249, buyers get two Echos and the new Echo Sub. The software forces the two Echos to work in stereo while the new subwoofer supplements the low-end. I haven’t heard the system yet, but I expect it to sound as good as the Google Home Max or Apple HomePod and the separate component operation should help the audio fill larger spaces.
Sonos has similar systems available. The fantastic Sonos One speaker can be used as a standalone speaker, part of a multiroom system, or as a surround speaker with other Sonos One speakers and the Sonos Beam audio bar. To me, Sonos is compelling because of their ecosystem and tendency to have a longer product refresh cycle. In the past, Sonos has been much slower to roll out new products but instead added services to existing products. The company seems to respect the owners of its products rather than forcing them to buy new products to gain new abilities.
In the end, though, smart speakers from Apple, Sonos, Google or Amazon will stop working. Eventually, the company will stop supporting the services powering the speakers and owners will throw the speakers in the trash. It’s depressing in the same way Spotify is depressing. Your grandkids are not going to dig through your digital Spotify milk crate. When the service is gone, the playlists are gone.
That’s the draw of component audio equipment. A turntable purchased in the ’70s could still work today. Speakers bought during the first dot-com boom will still pound when the cryptocurrency bubble pops. As for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, to me, it makes sense to treat it as another component in a larger system and enjoy it while it lasts.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Snapchat lets you take a photo of an object to buy it on Amazon

Snapchat lets you take a photo of an object to buy it on Amazon

See, snap, sale. In a rare partnership for Amazon, the commerce giant will help Snapchat challenge Instagram and Pinterest for social shopping supremacy. Today Snapchat announced it’s slowly rolling out a new visual product search feature, confirming TechCrunch’s July scoop about this project, codenamed “Eagle.”

Users can use Snapchat’s camera to scan a physical object or barcode, which brings up a card showing that item and similar ones along with their title, price, thumbnail image, average review score and Prime availability. When they tap on one, they’ll be sent to Amazon’s app or site to buy it. Snapchat determines if you’re scanning a song, QR Snapcode or object, and then Amazon’s machine vision tech recognizes logos, artwork, package covers or other unique identifying marks to find the product. It’s rolling out to a small percentage of U.S. users first before Snap considers other countries.

Snap refused to disclose any financial terms of the partnership. It could be earning a referral fee for each thing you buy from Amazon, or it could just be doing the legwork for free in exchange for added utility. A Snapchat spokesperson tells me the latter is the motivation (without ruling out the former), as Snapchat wants its camera to become the new cursor — your point of interface between the real and digital worlds.

Social commerce is heating up as Instagram launches Shopping tags in Stories and a dedicated Shopping channel in Explore, while Pinterest opens up Shop the Look pins and hits 250 million monthly users. The feature should mesh well with Snap’s young and culture-obsessed audience. In the U.S., its users are 20 percent more likely to have made a mobile purchase than non-users, and 60 percent more likely to make impulse purchases according to studies by Murphy Research and GfK.

The feature functions similarly to Pinterest’s Lens visual search tool. In the video demo above, you can see Snapchat identifying Under Armour’s HOVR shoe (amongst all its other models), and the barcode for CoverGirl’s clean matte liquid makeup. That matches our scoop based on code dug out of Snapchat’s Android app by TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal. Snapchat’s shares popped three percent the day we published that scoop, and again this morning before falling back to half that gain.

The feature could prove useful for when you don’t know the name of the product you’re looking at, as with shoes. That could turn visual search into a new form of word-of-mouth marketing where every time an owner shows off a product, they’re effectively erecting a billboard for it. Eventually, visual search could help users shop across language barriers.

Amazon is clearly warming up to social partnerships, recognizing its inadequacy in that department. Along with being named Snapchat’s official search partner, it’s also going to be bringing Alexa voice control to Facebook’s Portal video chat screen, which is reportedly debuting this week according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Snapchat could use the help. It’s now losing users and money, down from 191 million to 188 million daily active users last quarter while burning $353 million. Partnering instead of trying to build all its technology in-house could help reduce that financial loss, while added utility could aid with user growth. And if Snap can convince advertisers, they might pay to educate people on how to scan their products with Snapchat.

Snap keeps saying it wants to be a “Camera Company,” but it’s really an augmented reality software layer through which to see the world. The question will be whether it can change our behavior so that when we see something special, we interact with it through the camera, not just capture it.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Google Home Mini was the best-selling smart speaker in Q2

Google Home Mini was the best-selling smart speaker in Q2
Amazon’s Echo Dot may have been a bestseller on Prime Day, but Google’s Home Mini device is now the top-selling smart speaker worldwide, according to a new report out this morning from Strategy Analytics. The analyst firm says Google’s small speaker accounted for 1 in 5 smart speaker shipments in Q2 2018, edging out the Echo Dot with its 2.3 million global shipments compared to Echo Dot’s 2.2 million.
Combined, these two entry-level smart speakers – the Echo Dot and Home Mini – accounted for 38% of global shipments, the firm found.

In total, 11.7 million smart speaker devices were shipped during Q2, with 4 out of the top 5 devices coming from either Amazon or Google.
Following the Dot, was Amazon’s flagship Echo device with 1.4 million shipments, then Alibaba’s Tmail Genie (0.8m), and Google Home (0.8m).
Apple’s HomePod wasn’t ranked in the top five, but took a 6% share of the shipments in Q2.
However, HomePod’s premium focus and higher price tag allowed it to take a sizable chunk of smart speaker revenue during this period.
While the Home Mini and Echo Dot combined accounted for 17% of smart speaker revenues, Apple’s HomePod alone took a 16% share of wholesale revenues. And in terms of devices above the $200 price point, the HomePod had a 70% revenue share.
Strategy Analytics’s report also indicated this growing market is still in flux, thanks to expected new arrivals which could impact the shares held today by existing players.
“The number of smart speaker models available worldwide has grown significantly over the last twelve months as vendors look to capitalize on the explosive market growth,” said David Mercer, Vice President at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “Heavyweight brands such as Samsung and Bose are in the process of launching their first models, adding further credibility to the segment and giving consumers more options at the premium-end of the marker,” he added.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch