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Amazon’s new fall gadgets

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Amazon came out swinging at last week’s annual hardware event with the announcement of a slew of new gadgets due out this fall, including a pen-equipped Kindle, an upgraded Fire TV streaming box, and a bedside clock with contactless sleep sensors.

But the most interesting part of the news wasn’t any individual gadget. Rather, it was the benignity of the products: Instead of seeing flying security-camera drones and virtual barking guard dogs to fend off perceived threats, we got solutions to actual problems, such as poor sleep habits and spotty Wi-Fi. Amazon, it seems, is pivoting away from peddling fear to sell its products, at least for a short while, anyway.

It’s a refreshing change for a company that, for years, has put security and surveillance at the heart of its smart-home efforts, and it shows that the future of technology doesn’t have to be so dystopian.

A new use for Echos

The biggest aha moment comes with Amazon’s new Echo Dot speakers. In addition to the requisite improvements in sound quality, the speakers can serve as Wi-Fi extenders for the company’s Eero mesh routers, with each speaker offering up to 1,000 feet of coverage at speeds up to 100 Mbps. (The same capability will roll out to Amazon’s fourth-generation Echo speakers as well.)

Speaking of Eero routers, Amazon is also adding a feature that lets them relay the signal from a personal Wi-Fi hotspot, such as the one on your phone. If you have a $10 per month Eero Plus subscription, the backup feature will let your whole network stay online even when home internet goes down.

That’s a big shift in focus from a couple of years ago, when Amazon was talking up the ability to simulate dog barks on an Echo speaker when a nearby Ring camera detected an intruder; or from last year, when Amazon was pitching an Eero router that doubled as a Ring alarm system. Instead of trying to shoehorn more esoteric security features into its products, Amazon is honey in on the far more practical problem of shaky Wi-Fi.

Fewer cameras everywhere

Amazon also seems less interested in sticking security cameras into more places, as it notably abstained from doing so in several new products:

  • The Halo Rise bedside sleep tracker doesn’t have a camera or even a microphone—a fact that Amazon calls out prominently on its product page.
  • The second-gen Echo Auto, which brings Alexa voice control to car stereo systems, has a new design and a better mounting system, but still no camera for your dashboard.
  • The new Fire TV Cube and Fire TV Omni smart TVs remain camera-free. If you want to use them for Zoom calls, you must hook up your own external USB camera.

None of this would be remarkable if Amazon hadn’t been so fixed on smart-home cameras in previous years. In 2020, for instance, the company introduced a new Echo Show 10 smart display with a swiveling screen and camera that could capture video when you’re not around. A “Home Monitoring” update followed last year for the Echo Show 5 and 8, turning them into stationary home surveillance devices.

That’s not to say Amazon is abandoning home security; its newly announced Blink Floodlight and Ring Spotlight cameras suggest otherwise. But even those products are merely variations of previous models, and the Ring home security drone and car dashboard cam—first announced back in 2020—remain no-shows.

Finding a new glue

Why was Amazon pushing security and surveillance so hard in the first place? Perhaps because it was looking for better ways to monetize its array of smart-home devices. Although the company has sold more than 100 million Alexa devices over the years, people reportedly don’t use them for much beyond basic tasks, such as music or alarms.

With home security, the company may have seen an opportunity to make its ecosystem stickier and sell more subscriptions for home-monitoring service. In addition to Ring’s own protection plans, for instance, Amazon offers an Alexa-specific subscription for the motion-activated dog barks and sirens along with access to an emergency helpline.

Still, all that surveillance isn’t of much use on a day-to-day basis, and it exposed a lack of ingenuity on Amazon’s part. By contrast, turning Echo speakers into Wi-Fi extenders, using an Echo Show to get sleep reports from the Halo Rise, and even bringing the Fire TV interface to the Echo Show 15 will bring more utility to Amazon’s customers and make them want to use more Amazon products together.

As other companies, such as Apple, discover the power of fear-peddling as a way to achieve ecosystem stickiness, surprisingly it’s Amazon showing a better way forward.

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