Amazon looked to the past to build the future

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.

The Tesla Model 3 is finally approved for European roads

Tesla can now deliver Model 3 vehicles to European customers. The automakers midsize sedan was recently granted approval from RDW, the Dutch regulator and European authority tasked by Tesla to approve the vehicle for European roads.

The approval comes just ahead of the vehicle’s European introduction next month. Right now, it’s been reported that a cargo ship full of Model 3s is currently en route to Zeebrugge, Belgium and should arrive around February 2.

The nod from the European governing body was a critical last step. Tesla is clearly racing to get its least expensive vehicle in Europe ahead of the onslaught of EVs planned by European auto makers.

Last week, Tesla announced a cost-savings plan in an effort to shore up its international Model 3 deliveries. The automaker stated that it was cutting 7 percent of its full-time workers. In the email, CEO Elon Musk says the focus must be on delivering “at least the mid-range Model 3 variant in all markets.” He also warns those employees not set to be axed that there are “many companies that can offer a better work-life balance, because they are larger and more mature or in industries that are not so voraciously competitive.”

Tesla unveils first home charging station that can be plugged into a wall outlet

Tesla today is launching a new home charging station designed for the modern home. The new Wall Connector is the auto maker’s first home charging solution that can be plugged into a wall outlet rather than being hardwired into the home’s electrical system. This charger can plug directly into a NEMA 14-50 plug — the most common high-voltage plug in the US.

This is a departure from Tesla’s previous strategy but one that makes sense. This Wall Connector allows home owners to install a high-voltage charging system in a home without an electrician. Just plug it in.

The new Wall Connector offers a faster recharge time than the Gen 2 Mobile Connector that also offers a NEMA 14-50 plug. The new offering provides up to 40 amps to most Tesla vehicles while the Gen 2 Mobile Connector caps at 32 amps. Even still, Tesla’s hardwired Wall Connector recharges even quicker. Tesla is clearly looking to the new product to live in between its previous two chargers: It’s quicker and offers a cleaner look than the mobile connector, though slower but with a lower overall cost than the hardwired solution.

At $500 the new charger is inline with other home EV power solutions. It comes with a 24-foot cable and is only available in silver.

The graceful QX Inspiration Concept previews Infiniti’s electric lineup

Today at the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit, MI, Infiniti revealed its latest electric concept vehicle. Called the QX Inspiration Concept, this crossover is a preview of what’s to come from Infiniti.

The concept is built on Infiniti’s upcoming EV platform that will reportedly be used in all of Infiniti’s initial electric vehicles.

This concept is about the size of the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC and Infiniti’s QX50. And for good reason. That size is a proven winner with buyers. It’s the same reason Audi and Jaguar’s first EVs are around the size. Right now, consumers are looking for the height of small SUVs with the ride of a mid-size sedan. This platform is set to deliver both in an electric flavor.

QX Inspiration concept combines an electrified all-wheel drive powertrain with SUV body and introduces a new INFINITI form language for the electrified era

The platform is said to sport electric motors on each axle, providing direct power and all-wheel drive. This arrangement can be tuned in several fashions and does not necessarily speak to the potential performance of the vehicle. If coded as such, the dual motors could deliver blistering torque and 0-60 numbers or tuned in such a way to maximize range by preventing ludicrous speeds.

Infiniti didn’t release expected range of the upcoming platform or power numbers as the automaker is still a few years away from releasing its EVs to dealers. Pricing will likely be in line with competitors making the sticker around $75,000 – $85,000.

The best and worst of CES 2019: Monster displays, VR in cars and crazy personal gadgets

CES 2019 is here and there have been a lot of technology announced at the show. From the latest autonomous vehicle technology to the coolest personal gadgets, here’s a round up of the best from the show so far.

Autos

Smart Home

Personal Gadgets

The Worst

DJI finally releases a $650 Mavic 2 controller with built-in screen

The DJI Smart Controller lets Mavic 2 owners take to the skies without the need of a mobile device. The $650 controller includes a 5.5-inch screen that can display images streamed from the connected drone in full HD resolution.

DJI says this screen is twice as bright as mobile screens, too, which should make it easier to use in direct sunlight.

The device is a smart, though expensive accessory for drone owners. Right now, for most drones on the market, owners have to connect a mobile phone to a controller in order to access most of the controls of the drone and to view live video images. Often this is a cumbersome process and requires the owner to ensure multiple products are charged and connected. By combining the screen with the controller, it eliminates an extra step. The built-in screen in the cancelled GoPro Karma controller was one of its best features.

The screen itself is an Android device and reportedly supports DJI Go 4, DJI Pilot and other third party apps. The battery lasts 2.5 hours.

Video is streamed to the connected controller over DJI’s OcuSync 2.0 video transmission system. From my experience, it’s the best system available on a consumer drone platform, allowing images to hit a mobile device from an incredible distance.

DJI is going to sell the controller by itself starting today for $650. It will also be available in bundles with the Mavic 2 Pro and the Mavic 2 Zoom.

Elon Musk’s vision of spaceflight is gorgeous

The image here come from Elon Musk and is concept art of the Starship test vehicle SpaceX is currently assembling at its Boca Chica, Texas launch facility. The real thing will be even better. This test vehicle is shorter and lacks the windows of the production ship that will eventually go into production.

This March or April SpaceX intends to launch the rocket to suborbital heights to prove the viability of the Starship’s systems. Orbital flights are said to be on the books for 2020.

The Starship, previously named BFR, is key to the next phase of SpaceX’s plans. The company intends to use this model as its primary launch vehicle, eventually replacing the current Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets. SpaceX intends to the Starship to be rocket to rule them all. And it’s going to look good doing it.

Macaulay Culkin is Home Alone again in this fantastic Google Assistant ad

Google just released an advert for Google Assistant and its band of merry products. It’s really good. Basically the ad is Home Alone reimagined, but this time Macaulay Culkin plays an adult Kevin who home alone with a house full of devices controlled by Google Assistant. Obviously.

And for the sake of objectivity, I need to point out a home outfitted with Amazon or Apple’s voice assistants could do the same thing.

Ada nets $19 million Series A to grow its customer service chatbot

Ada is on a mission to build chatbots powered by artificial intelligence. The company today is announcing a $19 million Series A that will go far in helping it reach that goal. The company sees the capital fueling international expansion and launching products into new verticals as well as doubling down on employees.

Chatbots were a buzzword several years back. After the initial buildup and bust, the remaining players in the space are building upon the expectations set early on. Users of chatbots expect services to take actions on their behalf and perform routine functions quickly and efficiently. Likewise, companies are seeking solutions that exceed customer expectations, while offering features that allow the company to scale and expand.

“While many enterprises are choosing to invest in AI and automation,” the company tells TechCrunch, “the recurring investment of time and resources to implement, manage and improve highly technical solutions is diminishing the ROI. In turn, businesses are seeking inclusive and accessible platforms that empower non-technical support teams to build, manage and track the automated customer experience. Even among our own clients, we’ve seen the formation of some of the world’s first automated automation customer experience service (ACX) departments–made up of customer service professionals, not programmers–dedicated to building an automated, AI-powered customer experience. Ada’s automation is changing how people are working and the role of customer service by creating completely new departments, titles, and roles.”

Ada sees the Series A capital to expand the features built-into its products, allowing for a deeper level of personalization and customization — items that will go far with its clients. Launched in 2016 the Toronto-based startup expects to double its staff in the coming months. Right now the company has 70 employees and hopes to be at 140 sometime in 2019.

“2018 was an exciting time for the customer service industry,” Ada said. “Reservations about chatbots and virtual assistants are dissipating, as consumers continue to realize the tremendous benefits of instant, automated, self-service support. Their rising expectations have resulted in an industry-wide shift, with businesses changing from an ‘agent-first’ to an ‘automation-first’ customer strategy.”

The Series A was round was led by FirstMark Capital with participation from Leaders Fund and Burst Capital, as well as returning investors Bessemer, Version One, and computer scientist, Barney Pell.

“Ada’s accessible and scalable platform lets non-technical customer service teams build and manage AI-powered chatbots to automate interactions. Ada has delivered transformational, measurable results to some of the world’s most innovative brands, helping them shift from a reactive, expensive support strategy to a proactive model that reduces customer effort,” said Matt Turck, Managing Director of FirstMark Capital, in a released statement “Ada has played an important role in driving automated customer experience, and we’re confident in the team and the platform to surpass their rapid projected growth.”

The company is based in Toronto. When asked why Toronto, the company points to several data points such as the city’s designation of the fastest growing tech market in North America and the recent announcements of significant new office complexes from Microsoft and Google .

Review: Amazon Echo Input is the easiest way to stream media to speakers

This is the Echo I’ve been waiting for.

Throughout my house, I have Amazon Echo Dots connected to stereo systems. In my office, I have a Dot connected to an Onkyo receiver and amp. In my basement, I have one hooked up to a small bookshelf system. Outside on the deck, a Dot serves audio to a small amp that powers outside speakers. There’s more, but the point is made. The Dot is a great device to add voice services to existing speakers. But with its built-in speaker, I’m paying for features I’m not using.

That’s why Amazon made the Echo Input.

The premise is simple: The Input is a Dot without a speaker. It has a mic, two buttons, and most importantly, a 3.5mm output. This output lets the Input serve media to amps and powered speakers — just like I’m doing so with a Dot.

Since the Input doesn’t have a speaker, it’s much smaller. It’s only a half an inch thick. It’s a tiny thing, and I found it does the job as well as a Dot

Plug it in, set it up, and the Input adds voice services to speaker systems. From Bluetooth speakers to bookshelf speakers, it’s a great way to bring the convenance of Alexa to speakers.

The device is basic. To be clear this is not a Hifi device. To me, that’s okay on most speaker systems since I’m just streaming Spotify and NPR. Hopefully Amazon makes good on producing the Input’s HI-Fi cousin, the $199 Echo Link. This device was announced a few months back and does the same job as the Input, but features TOSLINK and coaxial digital audio outputs for connections to a proper DAC. The $299 Echo Link Amp does the same but features a built in amplifier to directly power a set of speakers. The Input is great for smaller speaker, but the Echo Link should provide a higher fidelity experience — and now that Tidal is available on the Echo, there’s a proper source too.

The Echo Link is said to be released on December 13.

For $35 the Echo Link does its job well. However, during the holidays, the Echo Dot is only $29.99 or less and features the same 3.5mm output. Unless size is a concern, I would recommend buying the Dot while it’s on sale just in case you need the speaker at a later time.