Amazon hosted its annual device and services event on Wednesday with almost a dozen new devices, several new services and some new infrastructure for the smart home worth discussing. If last year’s theme was making the smart home easier to set up and more widely available, this year’s theme is about making it easier to use these many devices that users have.
I’ll analyze the big picture in my newsletter on Friday, but first, let’s hit many of the announcements that Amazon made today.
Privacy and Kids
Amazon’s David Limp kicked off the event with a focus on privacy, devoting almost 10 minutes to how it has handled privacy in the past (having a physical circuit that turns the microphone on and off, having privacy zones on the Ring doorbell camera that excludes physical places from becoming part of a recording) and new features. It announced a physical camera shutter for a new Echo Show device, also said it would make it easier for people to delete recordings by asking Alexa to delete everything you said today or everything that you just said.
Limp also said Amazon would launch a Home Mode for camera-based devices and security devices that means they won’t record audio or video until you leave the house and arm the system. It also offers an Alexa privacy hub online where you can set rules for how Alexa stores data by device or by specific dates. This privacy hub is also where you would go to opt-out of having humans listen to your utterances.
Limps says that soon Amazon will provide an auto delete service that lets you select to have your Alexa data deleted on a rolling basis every three or every 18 months. I find this pretty interesting because some of the data Alexa stores is designed to make your life more convenient. For example, your work address is used to detect your commute time, or a standing weekday alarm is saved so you don’t have to set it every night. Will the rolling delete feature turn this sort of thing of, adding friction to the experience. Remember how frustrating it is to surf the web after you clear your cache? The rolling delete might lead to a similar experience.
Finally, on the privacy front, Amazon will add a feature that lets the user ask what Alexa heard (Alexa, tell me what you heard) and explain why Alexa did something (Alexa, why did you do that?). This is designed to help customers trust Alexa by giving her the ability to explain why she took a seemingly inexplicable action. It should also save the Amazon PR team from explaining every weird Alexa behavior.
On the kid front, where Amazon is currently facing a lawsuit about listening in and targeting children with ads, Limp provided minimal news. There was a device (the Echo Glow, a software developer kit that will tie into programs used by schools to manage homework and teach content (Alexa Education Skill API) and Alexa Communications for Kids which will let parents whitelist users who can call their kids on Echo devices. So I could approve kids that my daughter wants to talk to and if their parents also approve my daughter, they could communicate via their Echo Show devices.
I’m not clear with this feature is part of the Amazon Free Time service, but Limp also said that Freetime will be available on the Echo Show 8 for those who care. This section of the presentation actually had the most exciting demo for me as a parent. The ability to ask, “Alexa how did Anna do on her math test?” and get a reply would be awesome. However, this would depend on the school using software that takes advantage of the Alexa Education Skill API and me setting it up on the Echo.
Amazon launched roughly a dozen new Echo/Alexa products designed to segment the smart speaker for even more niches. It also announced some Ring products and a new Eero as well as some crazy new ideas and earbuds. Let’s dig in:
Echo Dot with a clock: Exactly what is sounds like. It’s an Echop Dot, with an LED clock on the face and the ability to hit the top to snooze your alarm. It will sell for $59.99.
Echo Glow: This is a product for your kids. It’s a small glowing orb, whose lights change colors. It will sell for $29.99
Echo Show 8: It’s the mama bear of the Echo Show family, providing an eight-inch display to match up with the 5-inch display and the 10-inch larger Show. The 8-inch Show will have a privacy shutter for the camera. It will sell for $129.99
Echo Flex: What if you crammed the Echo into a tiny plug-in device the size of an air freshener and popped a USB socket on the bottom? Then you’d have an Echo Flex, a $24.99 product that allows you to put the Echo in every room. It also opens up an accessory market for the Echo and with Limp showing off a motion detection sensor and a nightlight available for $14.99 each. IF this product has Bluetooth then I would think we are looking at Amazon’s mechanism for detecting presence in the smart home on a room-by-room basis.
Echo Studio: This seems to be Amazon’s answer to Sonos and the Google Max speaker. It is the size of an ice bucket but it has three mid-range speakers positioned on the top two sides and one pointing up to the top of the room, a tweeter, and a base at the bottom. It provides a surround-sound like experience in a really tiny package and is optimized to handle content formated for Dolby Atmos. It really does sound terrific. It will cost $199.99 and it will also take audio from the Amazon Fire TV and act like a soundbar (except it’s a sound ice bucket).
New Eero: There’s a new Eero Wi-Fi beacon/router product. I really don’t have much to say about this, except Amazon is sticking with Eero’s proprietary mesh tech, which is apparently has convinced other router makers to also use. TP-Link, Asus, and Arris will use the Eero TrueMesh technology. This is notable, only because the Wi-Fi Alliance has its own mesh network standard. The new Eero beacon is available now for $99 or $249 for a 3-pack.
New Ring indoor camera: Ring is going to build a relatively cheap indoor camera that costs $59.99. I have lost count of how many different cameras that Amazon has now. It has the Key Cam, the Blink cameras and now this. This camera is full-featured and cheap, but the Wyze camera is still cheaper.
Ring Retrofit Alarm Kit—This is a kit that customers can connect to an existing security system hub already in their home. It will work with the Ring Alarm. The Alarm Hub and Retrofit Alarm Kit will be available together for $375.99, and the Retrofit Kit will cost $199.99. They will ship in November. This is a sad piece of news for Konnected, which does the exact same thing, but requires the SmartThings hub.
Ring Stick Up Cam: It’s a smart camera that can work indoors, outdoors from wired power, with a battery, or with a solar-powered battery. It’s the old Ring Stick Up Cam only cheaper. It’s available today for $99.99.
Amazon Smart Oven: Watch out June. After the success of last year’s Alexa-enabled microwave, Amazon has launched a convection oven that can scan your food, act as an air fryer and as a food warmer. The oven comes with an Echo Dot, so I guess it doesn’t have Alexa built in. It will cost $249.99.
Echo Buds: The Echo Buds are a pair of wireless noise-canceling headphones with Alexa built in. You can also access Google or Siri (whichever you have on your phone) with a press. These were leaked, and it’s not a surprise that they exist. They’ll have 5 hours of battery life in your ears and 20 hours in the case. They’ll cost $129.99 which is a bit less than the top of the line wireless buds on the market today.
Echo Frames: Amazon also launched two beta products. These eyeglass frames (they can take prescription lenses) that put Alexa in the frames but don’t have any sort of display, and the Loop ring below. I love the frames as a concept because I already wear glasses and love the non-intrusive way to have Alexa in my ear without actually blocking out the sound from the outside world. These will cost 179.99 and surprisingly will also let you access Google Assistant from your phone with a press. I’m buying them as soon as I can, but they are invitation only.
Echo Loop: I am puzzled by this product. It’s a titanium-encased ring that has a mic and tiny speaker for talking to and getting info from Alexa on the go. It also has haptic feedback built in, so you know when Alexa is listening. It’s also available by invite only and will cost $129.
Services and Stuff
I’m running out of steam here so I’ll focus on a few things, Sidewalk, subscriptions, and usability. Sidewalk, which is a new wireless protocol that will sue the 900 Mhz unlicensed band to deliver low-bandwidth services over what could become long distances. Sidewalk was created to solve the networking challenge Ring devices face. Items such as sensors or lights for the front yard were sometimes too far from the home Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Sidewalk is an answer to this, although it’s not the only answer. Amazon could have chosen another radio such as LoRaWAN or partnered with SigFox or another low power wide area network company. But it built something new. I’m going to learn more, but I have questions about interference (that spectrum is widely used in microwaves, garage doors, baby monitors and more) as well as where the hardware infrastructure is to support this.
Amazon spent some time focused on celebrity voices for the Echo including a newly launched ability to have Samuel L. Jackson on your device in an explicit or clean version. This provoked titters in the audience, but Limp also said having Jackson yelling the weather at you would cost users 99 cents. Amazon has several subscription offerings with Prime, Music, Eero’s security services and now with Alexa. I expect to see more Alexa-derived services coming soon. Perhaps in the new partnership with the Food Network that Amazon also launched at this event. With that, Amazon Echo Show owners will have access to specially formatted recipes and cooking classes on their Echo Shows.
Amazon also is doubling down on Alexa Hunches, which it launched last year. Hunches provide users with suggestions of other devices they might want to use or common actions they take. Now it can suggest the creation of a routine and suggest things that need replacing in your home. I’m not sure if these hunches are based on knowledge from the product or just a guess based on your order history, but I’ll update this when I find out.
The hunches effort ties into the theme from last year’s event when Amazon focused on making it easier to get devices online and make them accessible for mainstream consumers. It’s taking that further this year with a Certified for Humans program, which is a gag-inducing name, but an important idea. Limp said there are more than a dozen criteria to get the certification, but they include easy Wi-Fi setup, over-the-air device updates, and no need for an app to set it up.
I’m pretty sure I missed a few items or ignored them because I don’t care too much about it (car integrations), but this news is more than enough. Amazon is gaining tremendous ground in the next phase of computing, and it’s doing so by throwing products out into the market to test for problems, then building products and services that address those problems. Once it’s done that,m it opens those services up for developers and hardware makers, which then help propagate the Alexa and related services.
We’ll talk more about that in Friday’s newsletter.