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Another fine mesh – TechCrunch

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Another fine mesh – TechCrunch

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:

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.

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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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