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Amazon will do whatever it can to pull you into Alexa’s ecosystem

Amazon will do whatever it can to pull you into Alexa’s ecosystem


We are approaching peak Amazon chaos energy

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I’ve been thinking about how Amazon takes a chaos-energy attitude towards developing ecosystems around its products. When it’s trying to get third parties to work with its products, Amazon throws open the doors and invites all comers. When it’s making new products itself, Amazon is much more likely than anybody else to just do whatever it wants, sometimes aggressively.

Sometimes that leads to hilarious Alexa products like rings that listen to your whisper when you push a button on it, IR blasters, and Alexa party games. Other times it leads to corporate synergy with a burgeoning police interest in surveillance.

Before we get to the dark stuff, let’s just take a minute with the latest example of how willing Amazon is to just do whatever it takes to get stuff to work with its ecosystem: creating a hacky box for shooting infrared beams at televisions so you can command them with Alexa. It is the equivalent of that tape deck adapter we used to have to use to get our Sony Discmans to work in our cars. It is very nearly peak Amazon Chaos Energy.

This IR blaster has so infuriated my boss Nilay Patel that I just had to give him some space here in this newsletter to talk about it. Nilay, take it away:

Why can’t the TV industry get rid of IR blasters? Infrared control of TVs and cable boxes and streaming devices like Roku players and the Apple TV is flaky and unreliable, and worse, it’s one-directional, so there’s no way for a device like Amazon’s new Alexa IR Compromise Cube to know if that volume-up command actually worked. (The best hack around this issue is the Caavo Control Center, which uses machine vision to monitor the HDMI output of various devices and check that commands have worked. A brute-force hack for the ages!)

IR is so bad that any product built around IR control of a TV system is doomed to fail. The original Google TV failed. The Xbox One TV mode failed, and almost took the Xbox One down with it. The Logitech Harmony remote is a dwindling business and Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell basically told us he’s just waiting for it to slowly dwindle away. You cannot build a product around a shitbox technology like IR and expect it to succeed.

But while everyone in the TV and home theater industries knows IR is bad, they keep building IR products and including IR in everything, because all the potential replacements are worse. HDMI-CEC is implemented inconsistently or not at all across devices. Controlling everything over Wi-Fi sounds great, but TV companies are not, uh great at building functional, reliable network software that works all the time. And Bluetooth is Bluetooth: it will be better next year.

Until something drastic happens — a drunk-with-power EU regulator says everything has to support CEC, or Apple releases a TV that doesn’t have any IR support and everyone buys one — IR will remain the fallback, lowest-common denominator. It is horrible.

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Amazon is not as vexed as Nilay. Amazon looks at that messy ecosystem and is happy to release any number of products to fill in whatever gaps consumers feel they need. Sure, you can buy an all-in-one Amazon solution if you like. But if you don’t, you can just get a Fire TV stick or a Fire TV box that’s also an Alexa speaker that’s also an IR blaster. Or just get the IR blaster if you already have an Echo speaker.

Amazon is perfectly happy to to make any and all of these things if it means people end up using Alexa just that bit more.

But I think that Amazon’s IR Blaster comes from the same place as other projects that are much more problematic, like Sidewalk or Ring. Facebook famously once had the “move fast and break things” slogan. Amazon isn’t quite doing that. I think it’s more like “Do stuff and see if anybody catches up — or catches on.”

It’s chaos energy — or in a more dated meme: it’s a Honey Badger attitude.

This attitude has been on my mind ever since Amazon’s fall hardware event, where it just up and announced an entirely new wireless technology called “Sidewalk.” Just as an example of how free Amazon feels from worries of public perception and regulators, let’s revisit it.

Sidewalk is a proposed spec on the 900MHz band for locating and communicating with Internet of Things (or smart home) devices at a middle distance — as much as a half-mile. It would be ultra low-power, cheaper than paying for 5G data, and multiple access points would work in concert to provide data and even locate objects. So far, so good — but inside this relatively humdrum paragraph you just read is a data security and privacy nightmare just waiting to happen if Amazon isn’t careful.

Whether you think Amazon is good, neutral, or evil, you can’t deny that it’s chaotic.

Amazon announced this proposed technology by unveiling a dog collar that lets you locate good ol’ Spot in the neighborhood, developed by its Ring division. What happens with Spot gets further than a half-mile from your home? No problemo, as Amazon noted in its own “liveblog” of its hardware event in September:

For example, just a week ago Amazon employees and their friends and family joined together to conduct a test using 700 Ring lighting products which support 900 MHz connections. Employees installed these devices around their home as typical customers do, and in just days, these individual network points combined to support a secure low-bandwidth 900MHz network for things like lights and sensors that covered much of the Los Angeles Basin, one of the largest metropolitan regions in the United States by land area.

Dan Seifert

In other words, just by installing the cheap and easy smart home stuff Amazon sells, an entire city can unknowingly create a wireless network where anything — like your very good dog or maybe yourself — can be located. Liz O’Sullivan raised the alarm about this and related Wi-Fi tracking in a Twitter thread back at the time and Charlie Warzel felt the same concerns.

For my part, I asked Amazon for as many details as possible about the spec immediately after the launch in the hopes of finding out just what the privacy and security protections might be, but very few have been forthcoming. It was (and presumably is) a very early spec and not at all ready for release. Amazon was looking to work with partners to develop it.

On stage, Amazon’s hardware boss Dave Limp pointed out that Sidewalk would be secure — end-to-end encrypted, I’m told — and that any device on the network would be auto-updatable. That last part is essential for IoT, as little gadgets on the edge of the network are often the first targets for hackers.

Do stuff and see if anybody catches up — or catches on

Imagine if Apple or — heaven forfend — Google just casually proposed a new wireless protocol that had the side benefit of providing that company a map of every connected device’s location. It would be a huge story! Amazon’s proposal, on the other hand, was lost in the chaos of assorted Alexa gadgets announced that day. (Then again, Google doesn’t really need this technology because it likely already knows where you are.)

Just step back and think about how brazen Sidewalk really is: an Amazon-owned and operated network that could eventually blanket cities simply through customers’ natural purchases of its products. Amazon simply isn’t worried about blowback. (That’s not to say Amazon isn’t worried about privacy or security, however. Caution and skepticism over Amazon’s plans is more than warranted, but that doesn’t mean we should assume it’ll do the wrong thing.)

This is part and parcel of Amazon’s whole attitude about ecosystems, though. It’s the same attitude that leads it to release dozens of Alexa products every year. Where Google has had to be ever more cautious about what services can connect to its smart speakers, Amazon’s Works with Alexa program is still much more laissez-faire. It has led to a huge proliferation of gadgets that work with your Echo speakers.

Those gadgets are coming faster than we can acclimate ourselves to them. Just today we learned that Amazon is willing to let police ask for Ring videos that are more than a month old. If Amazon is that free with Ring camera data, will it be equally free with location data gleaned from Sidewalk?

After this article was published, Amazon reached out to note that it has previously addressed concerns about sharing information with law enforcement with the following statement:

Ring will not disclose user information or videos to law enforcement unless the user expressly consents or if disclosure is required by law, such as to comply with a warrant. Ring objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate legal demands as a matter of course.

Sidewalk seems really cool and there are a dozen really cool uses for its wireless tech that I can think of right off the top of my head. But there are several dozen really creepy uses I haven’t thought of. I wonder if Amazon has given equal brainpower to the latter or if, like that Honey Badger, it’s perfectly happy to eat the snake, get bit, and trust the poison won’t kill it.

From Verge Science

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Updated Nov 20th, 2019 at 7:35PM ET with Amazon’s statement about providing Ring data to law enforcement. Also updated to clarify the IR blaster won’t work unless you already have an Alexa-powered speaker and to note that the Echo loop requires you to push a button on it before it will listen to you.