Flying camera drones, cuddly Echo gadgets... it's all a smoke screen for Amazon to lead you gently down the Sidewalk – and you'll probably like it
Right, we own cloud, shipping, what's next? The home
Analysis You may not want one, but the idea of your own miniature security drone taking off when it senses someone trying to break into your house and doing a tour inside your property, relaying hi-res video to your phone, is so fantastically sci-fi that it’s hard to imagine it will soon be a real product.
But it will, according to Amazon: the Ring Always Home Cam will cost a very reasonable $250 and be available in 2021. Here's a video:
Blink and you might miss the near-invisible caption: "Prototype device depicted. Functionality simulated for illustrative purposes only," which perhaps tells you all you need to know. It may not work very well, therefore, and it will inevitably be attacked if you have a pet in the house, though as gadget hype goes, it’s something different.
Likewise, the new Amazon Echo. Rather than the usual hockey pucks, the next generation will be little fuzzy round microphones and will have better sound, additional AI that will recognize your voice, and there'll be a cute version that looks like a panda or tiger that will read to your kids.
Then there’s a new Wi-Fi router that will mesh with others and form a new, secure network for all your devices. And a Ring Car Alarm that will detect if your car is broken into or if you’re in a crash and dial-in video and alerts. This is all new ground and, yes, it’s a little Jetsons. Which is exciting.
But that excitement is what makes it that much easier to oversee or ignore the very big problem underneath all the cool gadgets: data.
You may have noticed that Amazon has managed to pretty much dominate the entire online shopping market. For the consumer, that domination has come with massive benefits – do you remember when it took a minimum of a week for any product bought online to turn up? Well, this reporter bought a router bit yesterday morning and it was lying there when the door was opened first thing today.
Underneath that focus on what people want and the powerful drive to deliver it better than anyone else, however, is a ruthless, all-consuming drive. Amazon knows what you want and how you want it because it tracks the sales of everyone else’s products. Those companies are increasingly obliged to sell through Amazon because of its market control and service, giving Amazon ever-more insights.
Then, if it sees the opportunity to make a decent profit, Amazon can use all that information to step in and steal the market from under its “customer.”
Stay at home orders
Amazon is now trying to do the same with your home. In this case, the Amazon website/app will – the tech titan hopes – be replaced by its relatively new network called Sidewalk.
Sidewalk is a wonderful, clever thing – it takes a small amount of your Wi-Fi network bandwidth and uses it to share data with other Sidewalk devices. It is its own Internet of Things network, and all the new gadgets just announced will incorporate it. The old ones will get it through software upgrades.
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Amazon’s Sidewalk is proprietary, and uses Bluetooth Low Energy over short distances, and 900MHz LoRa bands and other frequencies over longer ranges. Crucially, while at the same time working on a new industry smart-home standard with Apple, Google et al, Amazon ruthlessly exploited a hole in the current situation to gain platform control.
The Connected Home Over IP approach has been going painfully slowly and in an update last month, it became clear why: despite promising to work together Apple and Google and Amazon remain determined to find a way to control the market.
And that control will be through digital assistants: Alexa, Ok Google and whatever Apple finally ends up doing. The new IoT “standard” is being specifically written to create an Alexa-sized carve-out.
While Apple just can’t stop itself from trying to control everything (buy the AppleTV to connect with your Apple iPhone to talk to your Apple Homepod) and Google is philosophically driven to make everything open source and tied to its search/advertising engine, Amazon has a much more market-driven approach: let everyone do what they do, but make them do it over your system, then identify the winners and steal their market.
Amazon has also done a very smart thing: it has come out forcefully on the issues of privacy and security. The network will be locked down, and none of your information will be shared. Except, that is, with Amazon.
Amazon won’t know the full details – unlike creepy Google – but it doesn’t need to. It will take exactly the data it needs to gain a full understanding of the many small segments of the overall market in a way no one else will be able to. And then it will beat anyone in its way in each segment into submission.
I have a hunch
Those Alexa integrations? Data. It is now introducing “Hunches” that will insert Amazon between the user and smart home products. So you tell Alexa what you want and Amazon does it for you, storing that information and effectively taking over.
It’ll make people’s lives easier but it will also give Amazon the same insights as the actual manufacturer of the product, and encourage that maker to become increasingly reliant on Amazon.
Put its product in your car and it knows where you are and where you go. Use its new CarePlus service – which ostensibly does a great thing: enables you to see the Alexa responses in a different household so you do things like keep track on elderly relatives – and you give Amazon a map of your closest connections.
Buy the cool automatic drone and you hand Amazon a looking glass into your entire home. How long after your discussion about the ageing red couch in the lounge will Alexa start making suggestions for replacements? It’s available now and can be delivered on Thursday if you buy through your Amazon Prime account now.
And the brutal part of it is that most people will find this kind of service incredibly useful. Everyone will benefit, and Amazon will then use the market control and money to produce yet more cool gadgets to tie everyone into its system even more. Everything will be great. Just so long as you leave Amazon in charge. ®