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Amazon looked to the past to build the future – TechCrunch

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Amazon looked to the past to build the future – TechCrunch

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 and Amazon’s vertically integrated offering could be the solution for the consumer and retail giant alike.

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 lightbulb. Amazon’s purchase of the mesh WiFi 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 in this wonderful article, mesh networking is the solution to the problem created by Amazon’s push into every room. Wifi 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 that 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.

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Respawn will premiere its ‘Star Wars’ game on April 13th

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After years of work, Respawn is nearly ready to show what its Star Wars game is all about. Lucasfilm has announced that EA and Respawn will formally reveal Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order at a Celebration Chicago panel on April 13th. The two are unsurprisingly shy about details, but you’ll meet a Padawan who survived Order 66 (the command to exterminate the Jedi) and experience what it’s like to live in an era where there are seemingly no Jedi left. You can expect “never-before-released” details of the game, Lucasfilm said, which isn’t hard when the game is largely a secret.

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Spotify launches in India – TechCrunch

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Spotify launches in India – TechCrunch

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Spotify launches its streaming service in India

Just for India, Spotify users who do not pay for a subscription can play any song on demand on mobile. There are also playlists for India and a “Starring…” feature that includes music from Bollywood movies.

“Not only will Spotify bring Indian artists to the world, we’ll also bring the world’s music to fans across India,” said Spotify CEO Daniel Ek.

2. FTC creates antitrust task force to monitor tech industry

This isn’t necessarily a precursor to some big action like breaking up a big company or imposing rules or anything like that. It seems more like a recognition that the FTC needs to be ready to move quickly and decisively in tech matters.

3. This is the Stanford thesis presentation that launched Juul

Against a backdrop of public backlash and looming federal regulations, the world’s biggest e-cigarette manufacturer has released video of the original thesis presentation that launched the company.

4. We’re ready for foldable phones, but are they ready for us?

After years of prototypes, the age of foldables has finally arrived.

5. D-Wave announces its next-gen quantum computing platform

With the latest improvements, developers can use the machine to solve larger problems with fewer physical qubits — or larger problems in general.

6. How Amazon took 50 percent of the e-commerce market and what it means for the rest of us

Some thoughts from the former SVP of Walmart’s global e-commerce supply chain.

7. Steam fights for future of game stores and streaming

Cracks are starting to appear in Steam’s armor, threatening to make it the digital equivalent of GameStop — a once unassailable retail giant whose future became questionable when it didn’t successfully change with the times. (Extra Crunch subscription required.)

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FTC ruling sees Musical.ly (TikTok) fined $5.7M for violating children’s privacy law, app updated with age gate – TechCrunch

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FTC ruling sees Musical.ly (TikTok) fined $5.7M for violating children’s privacy law, app updated with age gate – TechCrunch

A significant FTC ruling issued today will see video app TikTok fined $5.7 million for violating U.S. children’s privacy laws, and will impact how the app works for kids under the age of 13. In an app update being released today, all users will need to verify their age, and the under 13-year-olds will then be directed to a separate, more restricted in-app experience that protects their personal information and prevents them from publishing videos to TikTok .

In a bit of bad timing for the popular video app, the ruling comes on the same day that TikTok began promoting its new safety series designed to help keep its community informed of its privacy and safety tools.

The Federal Trade Commission had begun looking into TikTok back when it was known as Musical.ly, and the ruling itself is a settlement with Musical.ly.

The industry self-regulatory group Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) had last spring referred Musical.ly to the FTC for violating U.S. children’s privacy law by collecting personal information for users under the age of 13 without parental consent. (The complaint, filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Commission, is here.)

Musical.ly, technically, no longer exists. It was acquired by Chinese firm ByteDance in 2017. The app was then shut down mid-2018 while its user base was merged into TikTok.

But its regulatory issues followed it to its new home.

According to the U.S. children’s privacy law COPPA, operators of apps and websites aimed at young users under the age of 13 can’t collect personal data like email addresses, IP addresses, geolocation information or other identifiers without parental consent.

But the Musical.ly app required users to provide an email address, phone number, username, first and last name, a short biography and a profile picture, the FTC claims. The also app allowed users to interact with others by commenting on their videos and sending direct messages. In addition, user accounts were public by default, which meant that a child’s profile bio, username, picture and videos could be seen by other users, the FTC explained today in its press release.

It also noted that there were reports of adults trying to contact children in Musical.ly, and until October 2016 there was a feature that let others view nearby users within a 50-mile radius.

“The operators of Musical.ly—now known as TikTok—knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons, in a statement. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.”

COPPA law, of course, becomes a bit complex to implement for apps like TikTok that sit in a gray area between being oriented toward adults and being aimed at kids. Specifically, apps preferred by tweens and teens — like Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok — are often clamored for by younger, under-13 kids, and parents often comply.

But some parents are caught off guard by these apps. The FTC says Musical.ly had fielded “thousands of complaints” from parents because their children under the age of 13 had created Musical.ly accounts.

In addition to the $5.7 million fine, the FTC settlement with Musical.ly includes an agreement that will impact how the TikTok app operates.

It says TikTok is now considered a “mixed audience” app, which means there needs to be an age gate implemented on the app. Instead of locking out under-13 users from the TikTok service, younger users will be directed to a different in-app experience that restricts TikTok from collecting the personal information prohibited by COPPA.

TikTok is also complying with the ruling by making significant changes to its app. It will now restrict under-13 kids from being able to film and publish their videos to the TikTok app. It will also take down all videos from kids under 13.

Instead, the under-13 crowd will only be able to like content and follow users. They will be able to create and save videos to their device — but not to the public TikTok network. Nor can they share videos on the app with their friends if they use TikTok via a private account.

As TikTok already has a large number of younger kids on its app, it will push an app update today that displays the new age gate to both new and existing users alike. Kids will then need to verify their birthday in order to be directed to the appropriate experience.

This is not likely going to have an impact on how many kids use TikTok, however. Kids today already know to lie to age pop-ups so they can enter a restricted app. That’s how they set up accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and elsewhere.

However, the move at least puts TikTok on a level playing field with other “mixed audience” apps instead of allowing it to pretend U.S. children’s privacy laws do not exist.

TikTok reportedly has been installed a billion times worldwide, according to recent data from Sensor Tower. The company doesn’t publicly disclose its figures, but the FTC says since 2014, more than 200 million users had downloaded the Musical.ly app worldwide, with 65 million accounts registered in the United States.

The Commission vote to authorize the staff to refer the complaint to the Department of Justice and to approve the proposed consent decree was 5-0. Commissioner Rohit Chopra and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter issued a separate statement, shared below:

The Federal Trade Commission’s action to crack down on the privacy practices of Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, is a major milestone for our Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) enforcement program. Agency staff uncovered disturbing practices, including collecting and exposing the location and other sensitive data of young children. In our view, these practices reflected the company’s willingness to pursue growth even at the expense of endangering children. The agency secured a record-setting civil penalty and deletion of ill-gotten data, as well as other remedies to stop this egregious conduct. This is a big win in the fight to protect children’s privacy.

This investigation began before the current Commission was in place. FTC investigations typically focus on individual accountability only in certain circumstances—and the effect has been that individuals at large companies have often avoided scrutiny. We should move away from this approach. Executives of big companies who call the shots as companies break the law should be held accountable.

When any company appears to have a made a business decision to violate or disregard the law, the Commission should identify and investigate those individuals who made or ratified that decision and evaluate whether to charge them. As we continue to pursue violations of law, we should prioritize uncovering the role of corporate officers and directors and hold accountable everyone who broke the law.

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