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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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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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