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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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SoftBank and Mubadala grow closer – TechCrunch

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SoftBank and Mubadala grow closer – TechCrunch

The Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi state investment company, have a closely intertwined relationship, and it’s one that the two are further cementing. According to the Financial Times, SoftBank has just committed half the capital for a new $400 million fund from Mubadala that aims to back European startups.

Industry observers might remember that Mubadala committed $15 billion to SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund as it was first being put together in 2017. Soon after, Mubadala opened a San Francisco office, as well as structured a $400 million fund designed to invest in early-stage startups to which SoftBank committed some capital.

The pact was understandable, including because Mubadala’s early-stage fund could theoretically provide SoftBank with a better idea of what’s happening at companies that are earlier in their trajectories than SoftBank typically sees. The move was also meant to better enable Mubadala to oversee the money it committed to SoftBank.

The newer fund appears to be raising questions, however.  At least, the FT notes that the timing is “unusual” given that SoftBank is currently saddled with $154 billion in gross debt. The new fund also “raises the prospect that Mubadala’s influence with the Vision Fund will only grow by allowing it to shape SoftBank’s tech investments,” as suggest the FT’s sources.

Yet SoftBank may not have much choice but to work increasingly closely with Abu Dhabi. As the company’s CEO, Masayoshi Son, said earlier this month, the Vision Fund has spent about $50 billion of its approximately $99 billion in capital. Given the rate at which it has been investing (it just plugged nearly $1 billion into a company last week), its remaining funds might not last through 2020.

Meanwhile, it isn’t clear whether SoftBank enjoys the solid relationship that it once did with the Vision Fund’s biggest anchor investor, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which provided SoftBank with a $45 billion commitment for its current fund and that SoftBank was largely counting on to be its biggest backer in a second Vision Fund.

On October 3rd of last year, Bloomberg journalists talked with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS), and he said he planned to invest a further $45 billion in SoftBank. Yet what few knew then was that five days earlier, journalist and Saudi regime critic Jamal Khashoggi had vanished after going into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. As questions, and concern, began to spread over MBS’s involvement in the disappearance, many business executives canceled plans to visit Riyadh, where Saudi Arabia hosted an investment conference in the middle of October. Son was among them, even as he tried hedging his bets by visiting privately with MBS in Riyadh the night before the event began.

Whether that move angered MBS remains to be seen. It also isn’t clear whether the CIA’s eventual findings that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder, or the unflattering attention paid to Saudi Arabia because of that murder, is impacting where SoftBank is able to invest its capital.

Son, for his part, declined to say earlier this month whether he would consider taking more money from Saudi sources — which is perhaps telling in itself.

In the meantime, it’s barreling ahead with Mubadala, which will reportedly use its new fund to write checks to European startups of between $5 million and $30 million.

As with Mubadala’s San Francisco-based team, the idea appears to be to act as a funnel for SoftBank’s Vision Fund, steering it deals that Mubadala’s team sees as the most promising in its portfolio.

Mubadala’s European venture fund will be run out of a new office in London, which is expected to open this spring. The Vision Fund is currently also headquartered in London, with another office in San Francisco and soon, offices expected in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

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The superfans behind the Instant Pot hype

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The superfans behind the Instant Pot hype

As Fox raced around Naples, Florida, two other Instant Pots cooked away on her counter, perfecting brown rice and broccoli, respectively. A fourth “spare IP in the original box” squatted in the garage, in case of an emergency. “I should own stock in brown basmati, bone broth and sauce packets by Frontera,” she quipped.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, 42-year-old Andrea Evans had just branched out from cheesecakes to cannabis-infused coconut oil. Besides being an ingredient in muffins, she says she utilizes the oil for “massaging muscles, and as a sex lube,” proving that you really can use the Instant Pot for anything.

Both Fox and Evans are part of a Facebook group called “Best F*cking Instant Pot Recipes Ever,” which features a photoshopped picture of Beyoncé clutching the stainless steel kitchen contraption. It numbers almost 5,000 members, which, in the scheme of IP groups, is a drop in the pressure cooker.

The official Instant Pot group has 1.8 million members, and Facebook boasts hundreds run by the community, including my favorite, “”Dump and Push Start” Easy Instant Pot Recipes,” with 86,000 members. The device is listed as No. 4 in Amazon’s best-sellers in kitchen and dining, but other appliances don’t garner this level of online devotion.

In fact, the other items in Amazon’s top 10 list have an average of only 4,000 reviews each, and the IP has garnered more than 28,000. People love their Instant Pots so much they buy 3D-printed dragon steam vents for them, make birthday cakes in the shape of them, and even dress up as them for Halloween. Last November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at 29-years-old had just been elected to the House of Representatives, made mac and cheese in her Instant Pot for a group of several hundred thousand viewers on Instagram Live.

In other words, Instant Pot users are fanatical, intensely devoted to their devices. Some have even called it a cult. Who are the acolytes using the IP, and why does it mean so much to them?

The Instant Pot is not that different from Grandma’s traditional pressure cooker. The big change? It uses electricity, not the stovetop, and it has self-regulating safety features. In other words, it’s not going to blow up your batch of Bolognese.

The Instant Pot — which can also be a slow cooker, steamer and yogurt maker among other functions — has been around for about a decade, though its popularity skyrocketed in the past two years. In 2008, former Nortel engineer Robert J. Wang realized how hard it was to cook healthy meals for his two young children and set about creating a gadget to solve this. He spent 18 months and more than $300,000 of his own personal savings working with a team of “telecom engineers” — according to Inc — to create the Instant Pot.

After the co-sign of influencers like Jill Nussinow and Michelle Tam followed by a 2016 Amazon Prime Day promotion, the Instant Pot got gushing coverage from both The New York Times and home cooks like like Brittany Williams. (Williams lost over a hundred pounds cooking with her IP, her Instant Loss Cookbook is a national best-seller and her Facebook community has 97.8k members).

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Apple could be looking for its next big revenue model – TechCrunch

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Apple could be looking for its next big revenue model – TechCrunch

Apple has always been an evolving company. While it never really invented any product categories, it always seemed to make those product categories work better and smarter. It also found a way to make us want them, even when they were more expensive. Today, the WSJ reports, Apple is trying to find its way to a future without the iPhone at the center of its revenue model.

This shift happens as Apple reported lower revenue for the first time in years against a backdrop of flagging iPhone demand. Part of the problem is a shifting Chinese market, but it’s also due to people simply taking longer to refresh their phones. As that happens, and the price of iPhones soared to more than $1,000, there has been a decline in sales.

With iPhone sales down 15 percent, this was not a typical Apple earnings report, but it was something the company had anticipated when it announced lower Q1 guidance at the beginning of the year. If The Wall Street Journal story is accurate, Apple is already trying to take steps to move the company into its next phase, possibly as a services business.

If that’s the case, it would mark a radical departure from the company’s history in which it has redesigned various types of hardware, bucking popular design trends along the way. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when it was called Apple Computer, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak made computers with a GUI when most people were working from the DOS prompt.

In the early 2000s, Apple came out with an MP3 player called the iPod and opened a music store called iTunes. By 2006, the year before it would introduce the iPhone, Apple had sold more than 42 million units and 850 million songs. It was a combination of hardware and services that helped transform a flagging company into a powerhouse.

In 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone, it knew that it would begin to eat into iPod sales, and it eventually did, but it didn’t matter because it was the next logical step forward. When it introduced the App Store in 2008, the iPhone became more than a standalone piece of hardware. It was a new kind of hardware-service model and it would generate incredible wealth for the company.

The iPad came along in 2009 and the Apple Watch five years later, in 2014. While each has done reasonably well, nothing has touched the success of the iPhone. Keep in mind that analysts estimated that Apple sold 71 million iPhones last quarter, and this was in a quarter in which sales declined. It’s hard to sell 71 million units of anything in a three-month period and have it be a down quarter.

What comes next is probably some combination of entertainment/content and making use of advancing technologies like AR/VR, driverless cars and artificial intelligence. It’s unclear which direction Apple will take in these areas, but we do know that recent hires and acquisitions point in these directions.

There has long been speculation that Apple could make a splashy acquisition in the content area. When Eddie Cue, Apple senior vice president of internet software and services was interviewed by CNN’s Dylan Buyers at South by Southwest last year, Buyers specifically asked Cue about buying a property like Netflix or Disney. He implied that it was about taking the Apple TV and combining that with a big-name content production company.

Cue indicated that the two companies were great partners for Apple TV, but he wasn’t ready to commit to anything along those lines. “Generally, in the history of Apple, we haven’t made huge acquisitions.” He went on to explain, from Apple’s perspective, it wants to figure out where the future is and to build something to get it there, rather than buying something that is working for the current state of affairs.

It’s worth noting that Apple TV has not matched the huge success of its other devices, but service revenue has been growing steadily. In the most recent earnings report, Apple reported services revenue of $10.9 billion, up 19 percent year over year. That’s still a small percentage of the overall $84.3 billion the company reported for the quarter, but it is growing.

Regardless, nobody can know if Apple can approach the success with any product that it has had with the iPhone. But it knows that in spite of its vast riches, it’s dangerous for any company to rest on its past success. So it looks ahead and hires new blood and looks for a future with less dependence on the iPhone because it knows, as the Grateful Dead once sang, “You can’t go back and you can’t stand still. If the thunder won’t get you, then the lightning will.” Apple is hoping to avoid that fate, and perhaps it is some new combination of hardware, content and services that could lead the way.

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