Amazon Echo – A Boon to Baby Boomers
When the first Amazon Echo device was released back in June of 2015, we questioned whether it would really take off in the mainstream. At that point Alexa was basically a glorified Bluetooth speaker that could control the lights and add items to an Amazon shopping list. But over the past couple years we’ve all seen new functionality, and some amusing-yet-compelling use cases, thanks to Amazon’s TV ad campaigns.
Since then, sales numbers skyrocketed, and especially over the past year – survey estimates this past summer put Echo sales at more than 10 million units. And now there are all sorts of Echo spinoff devices, like the Echo Dot, and the newer Echo Show, a video-enabled version.
Never be without your lyrics again — Echo Show, $150
More than two years after adding a few Amazon Echo devices around the house, I still have mixed feelings. The low-level creepiness of knowing she’s always listening never quite goes away, but thanks to some special skills I’ve set up (more on that later) the Echoes are useful enough that they’ve kept their rightful places in my house.
The true test came when my uncle stayed with us for a night over the Thanksgiving holiday. We gave him a quick introduction to the Echo Dot on the nightstand, and showed him the commands for controlling the Philips Hue bulbs scattered around the house. As we turned in for the night, we heard Alexa reciting the news headlines in his room.
I awoke the next morning to find my uncle browsing Amazon while using Siri to text message his friends about the Echo. “I gotta get an Amazon Alexa, period. She’s great, exclamation point!”
He put down his phone and turned to me. “This morning I asked her if she could play me Willie Nelson and she just started playing Willie Nelson! I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off though.” I heard Red Headed Stranger still quietly playing from the other room, and stuck my head in the doorway. “Alexa, SILENCE!” My uncle resumed browsing on his phone. “I might need to get a couple of these.”
And with that, and as-important developments like Comcast’s voice remote, I think we’ve officially reached the point where speech recognition devices are advanced and intuitive enough to actually be useful to the average person. These days it’s easier to use voice commands than to squint at phone screens and use tiny virtual keyboards, especially for the older generations. Even my Mom, who back in 2005 threatened to disown the entire family when we surprised her with a cell phone upgrade, is already on the Echo bandwagon.
A few of the services that currently work with Echo devices
What about privacy?
With all the devices now listening in around the country, we’d be remiss not to mention privacy. Sure, it can be a little unsettling to own a device nearby that may or may not be recording your conversations – speaking of which, did you hear about that Google Home bug that caused some devices to record 24/7 and store it all in the cloud?
At least a few times a week, I’ll see the Echo in my living room light up randomly, without the “wake word” ever being spoken. If you ask “Alexa, is Jeff Bezos spying on me?” she’ll respond coolly, “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear the wake word.” Really, in this day and age, what device isn’t collecting information about our habits and trying to find a way to make sense of (and monetize) all that data?
For most of us, it really comes down to how useful a device is versus how concerned we are about the data we might be sharing with it. Security breaches are a part of life these days, when even buying a can of paint can result in the headache of having your data compromised and your card reissued.
Turns out it’s increasingly not that hard to overlook privacy concerns — when the product makes life easier. Sure, I worry that my data will end up in the wrong hands. Do I worry enough to unplug all my devices, stuff them into the closet, and go back to the dark ages before Alexa turned on the lights for me? Nope. But if I were engaged in more behavior that Jeff Bezos and Uncle Sam would find interesting, I might feel differently.
One thing is for sure, when it comes to Alexa: I feel for people whose actual name is Alexa. When I run into human Alexas, I always ask them: So – how’s it going? The answers vary, but in general, they either don’t own the device, or they’ve changed the wake word….
Somebody Please Apply CALM to OTT Video Before I Jump Out of My Skin
How many times has this happened to you: You’re streaming video to your TV, using an OTT device (like a Roku or Chromecast), over a network app that you’ve authenticated with your cable or satellite subscription. It’s been a long day, and you begin to drift off – then BAM! you’re yanked back into consciousness by a commercial that is approximately 400 times louder than whatever show you were watching, before your heart leapt out of your chest and ran away.
If you’ve ever wondered why the commercials on OTT video are often so over-the-top loud compared to the commercials on TV, as it turns out, you maybe HAVE seen this movie before. Because variable loudness on broadcast commercials has been “a thing” for more than a decade. Here’s the background:
Back in 2010, we saw the first legislation aimed at too-loud commercials (which arguably have been the bane of viewers since the beginning of TV). It all started when Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif) asked her brother to turn down the TV after a loud commercial interrupted a family dinner. In true brother fashion, he told her to just make a law against loud commercials (seeing as she was the legislator and all).
So she did, and on September 29, 2010, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act was unanimously passed in the Senate.
The CALM Act requires broadcasters and MVPDs (Multichannel Video Programming Distributors) to ensure that the average audio of TV advertisements isn’t louder than the program itself. The FCC began enforcing the CALM Act on December 13, 2012, encouraging viewers to call and complain about loud commercials that violate the rules.
By equalizing the average volume between content and commercials, the CALM Act aims to prevent advertisers from rupturing your eardrums in an attempt to get your attention. Though it creates an extra layer of complexity for MVPDs, this is a very good thing for the viewing experience (and isn’t that what matters?).
This is all accomplished using the A/85 Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television set forth by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee).
But this new solution wasn’t without pushback from unscrupulous advertisers. After the CALM act took effect, some advertisers started using silence or very quiet audio to offset extra-loud passages, so on June 4, 2014 ATSC amended the algorithm to close that electronic loophole. The current algorithm uses “gating” to exclude silent or extremely quiet parts of commercials when calculating the average volume.
As a result, commercials on TV today aren’t as obnoxiously loud as they used to be. If only we could say the same for streaming video!
Unfortunately, the CALM act only applies to broadcast television – it does not extend to content that is distributed over the Internet (even if that content is tied to a cable or satellite subscription). Currently there is no proposed legislation, and no end in sight, for the ultra-loud commercials that interrupt our streaming background noise.
This is an issue that begs to be revisited, because of the steady shift towards online viewing since the CALM act took effect in 2012. Nowadays, just about every cable network makes their content available through a website and an app, and payTV subscribers are viewing more of their TV content over-the-top – but the viewer experience is still marred by earsplitting advertisements. Subscribers of SlingTV started complaining about loud commercials back when the streaming service started back in 2015, and back then SlingTV acknowledged it as a “known issue” that was actively being addressed. Two years later the commercials are louder than ever.
We have to wonder what kind of conversion rates these obnoxious advertisements are getting. Presumably there is a payoff, or advertisers wouldn’t go to so much trouble to crank up the audio on their commercials. But surely we aren’t the only ones that scramble for the mute button, then roll ours eyes and add the offending brand to a mental list, titled Stuff I’ll Never Buy Because of Terrible Ads.
The Sad Saga of the Coolest Cooler
Here’s an update on the “Coolest Cooler,” one of the top-funded Kickstarter projects of all time. In case you missed it, the Coolest Cooler was a Bluetooth-connected cooler with a built-in blender and charging ports, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2014 for around $200. This connected cooler was a runaway success, attracting 62,642 backers, and overshooting its fundraising goal of $50,000 by more than $13 million.
Unfortunately, the campaign creator, Ryan Grepper, evidently didn’t do a great job of researching production costs for larger quantities, and certainly didn’t anticipate such an enthusiastic response to the Kickstarter campaign. Coolest Cooler cost significantly more to make and ship than backers paid for it, so the company (Coolest, LLC) lost money on every cooler it shipped to a Kickstarter backer.
That’s when the company halted shipments of the coolers to Kickstarter backers, and instead started selling the Coolest Cooler through Amazon and other retailers for $400 — double the Kickstarter price tag — while also trying to get another $15M in funding. Understandably, more than half of the early backers are both frustrated, and still waiting for their orders to be filled, almost three years after the expected ship date.
The Coolest Cooler made headlines again recently when its Grepper reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. Under the terms of that agreement, backers who complained to the DOJ before April 15, 2017 will receive their coolers by October 13, 2017, and everyone else will get their coolers “as Coolest LLC amasses sufficient funds from sales to afford the manufacture and shipping costs.”
This is rough for everyone involved – the naïve inventor who didn’t anticipate the actual costs, and the early backers who supported the campaign and are still waiting for their coolers.
And it’s only made worse by the passive-aggressive (emphasis on the passive) statement from the founder, Ryan Grepper, following the settlement agreement:
“The backstory, in case you had not heard, some Backers felt we were promising a shipping window, and when that didn’t happen, complaints were filed against us with the Oregon DOJ. Others felt there must be financial shenanigans going on, which were just conspiracy theories, as we were clear through the entire process that the cost of the Coolest ended up more than what we asked or collected per Backers. Still, no one wants to feel taken advantaged so more complaints were filed and, unfortunately, this really hurt all remaining backers because it put us at a virtual standstill.”
It really begs the question: How is one supposed to enjoy a nice beach picnic with the Coolest Cooler, if you actually get one, after getting the runaround from this guy for years? Wouldn’t you just want to take a baseball bat to the damn thing?
“I really want to throw this cooler off a cliff but I’ll just drown my sorrows instead”
Backing any hardware product on a crowdsourcing website carries risk – sometimes the “working prototype” is all just video editing, and backers end up paying for development costs instead of the product that was advertised as being ready for production. Typically, this turns into a situation where unforeseen challenges extend the timeline indefinitely, and backers never receive the product they paid for – otherwise known as “vaporware.”
And sometimes, as was the case with the Coolest Cooler, there is actually a real product — but the introductory price is set so low that when demand goes through the roof, the company finds itself unable to support production. This is the saddest situation of all.
Lest you’ve managed to sidestep this awkward situation, yet still are market for a cool cooler, consider Leslie’s advice: Forget the Coolest Cooler. Get a Yeti! Extremely well made, great customer service, built for endurance, no silly dithering over prices.
Juicero: Squeezing every last dime out of a bad idea
In case you haven’t heard about Juicero yet, consider yourself lucky. This Wi-Fi connected juicer (which is essentially a Keurig machine for juice) has been making the headlines again lately, after investors began complaining that they were misled by the founder.
Basically, Juicero is a countertop device that squeezes juice from a packet into a glass. It operates on a razor-and-blade business model — only you get gouged for the razor AND the blades, and the blades only have a shelf life of 6 days.
In an interview with Recode last fall, the company’s founder, Doug Evans, told the story of Juicero. Evans was one of the founding partners of Organic Avenue, a cold-pressed juice company – until 2012, when a partner bought out most of the equity and, in his words, told him to “go take a walk.”
Doug Evans, the veggie visionary behind Juicero.
In telling the story of how he came up with Juicero, Evans goes so far as to call himself the Steve Jobs of juice — “I’m going to do what Steve did. I’m going to take the mainframe computer and create a personal computer, I’m going to take a mainframe juice press and I’m going to create a personal juice press.”
Here’s how Juicero is supposed to work:
Juicero ships out packets of “chopped fresh fruits and vegetables” to its customers on a subscription basis, where subscribers get a refrigerated delivery of packets once a week. The packets need to stay below 41 degrees, so they must be refrigerated at all times (but can’t be stored in the freezer, as that can “compromise flavor and nutrient density.”)
These packets fit inside a $400 (originally priced at $700) device that sits on your counter. The Juicero then scans a chip embedded in the packet to make sure it’s not expired (the machine refuses to press packets after they hit the expiration date – but fear not! The Juicero app will send you notifications every time you have a pack about to expire.)
Once you put a pack in the machine, it squeezes your fresh juice with 3 to 4 tons of pressure (enough to lift two Teslas!) And dispenses it into your glass (this process takes about two minutes). Each packet costs $5-7, and packets contain anywhere from 3 to 8 ounces worth of juice, depending on the flavor. Juicero is currently available in 17 states.
According to the founder, it takes a lot of specialized technology to press juice out of Juicero packets. As he described it to Recode, “there are 400 custom parts in here… there’s a scanner; there’s a microprocessor; there’s a wireless chip, wireless antenna.”
Here’s how it actually works:
Funny story, some of Juicero’s backers discovered that the packets could be squeezed just as well by human hands. A reporter from Bloomberg performed a test, which found that although the Juicero press yielded a half ounce more juice, squeezing the packets by hand was 30 seconds faster. Either the reporter from Bloomberg is freakishly strong, or Juicero’s claim about 3-4 tons of pressure is a load of pulp. It also seems that rather than freshly chopped berries and greens (as the marketing implies), Juicero bags contain something more akin to liquefied slime. Naturally, Juicero’s response to the revelation that its packets can be squeezed by hand was to require you to show proof that you own the machine before allowing you to buy packets.
Now investors are (understandably) frustrated, after being promised a machine capable of squeezing large chunks of fruits and vegetables. And you might ask, who actually invested in this product? Unbelievably, Juicero secured around $120 million dollars, with hefty buy-in from companies including Alphabet (Google), Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Campbell’s Soups.
Why Juicero is a terrible idea
Now that the “3-4 tons of force” claim has been debunked, we’ve learned that this bulky and pricey machine pretty much does the equivalent of opening a juice bottle. Only it will refuse to work if your juice is a minute past the expiration date (good thing you can use your hands!).
Speaking of food safety, we also wonder about the contamination issues that often crop up in our industrial food system — what happens if Juicero gets a batch of contaminated spinach? What happens if the packets get delayed in transit and the ice pack melts? And if Juicero goes out of business now that the jig is up, and they stop selling packets, what in the world are you going to do with that monstrous machine?
IFTTT IT Works, Don’t Mess With It (Update)
A couple years ago, we wrote about IFTTT (If This Then That), a glue service that connects smart home devices and web services. In a nutshell, IFTTT gives services and devices a way to talk to one another, and then allows you to write simple scenarios (or “applets”) using a “trigger” from one service and an “action” from another. For example, changing the light color (action) when your weather station detects rain (trigger.)
We’ve been using IFTTT on a near-daily basis since 2014 – and over the course of these past few years, the IFTTT experience has changed quite a bit. So we thought it was time for an update of our own (and maybe a small rant).
Big changes to the business model
It’s been our longtime hope that IFTTT would bring more features to its users through a paid subscription plan. Yes, we would happily shell out $10 a month to be able to set up synchronized alerts (for example making lights turn red AND calling my phone if the greenhouse is overheating — currently the only way to accomplish this is to set up multiple instances of the same trigger).
Back in 2014, that seemed like a sure thing. IFTTT’s founder, Linden Tibbets, even came right out and said that they were looking towards charging consumers for a premium service in the coming months. He also mentioned opportunities “on the channel side” — which turned out to be the direction IFTTT took.
Alas, we never did get the premium subscription we hoped to see. Instead, in February 2016 IFTTT launched a $199/month subscription plan for its service partners. IFTTT also allows applets to run directly from those partner apps now, so users can access a curated selection of applets without ever downloading the IFTTT app.
And our hope for synchronized actions? IFTTT can do that now, but only partners have that ability, not consumers. So now BMW has its own applet that makes Garageio open the garage door, turns up the Nest thermostat, and turns on the Philips Hue lights when the car pulls in the driveway – but there’s no way for the user to use different hardware or customize the applet. For consumers wanting to do more with IFTTT, there is another option – the “Maker” channel, released in June 2015. This channel lets users create applets using any device or service that can make or receive a web request. For example, I was able to get IFTTT pulling the data from my Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, and then I set up various alerts for low and high glucose thresholds – calling my phone, turning on lights, putting a notification on the Comcast X1 box, etc.
However, the Maker channel still doesn’t allow multiple actions per applet; I had to create separate applets for every trigger/alert combination – which, in addition to being a pain, makes for a long list of applets that need to be updated if you decide to make changes.
So how’s that partner subscription working out?
In the early days, services were added to IFTTT for free, often with no development work on their part – IFTTT just connected to apps and devices with open APIs.
Now that IFTTT is asking services to pay for its platform, some have been vocal about their support for the new IFTTT while others were cut off for refusing to shell out the cash. The founder of social bookmarking service Pinboard even wrote a blog post about why he chose not to sign on, citing “squirrely terms of service” and that IFTTT “wanted him to do their job for them, for free.” Of course, in that same blog post he also compared IFTTT to a sewer pipe, so read into that what you will.
Interestingly enough, there are several key partners that are NOT paying to be part of IFTTT’s platform (Philips Hue for example) – and IFTTT is keeping mum on how many of its approximately 360 partners actually subscribe. (Our napkin-math says that even if ALL of them signed on, they’d be making about $621K/year. We’re not financial geniuses, but that nonetheless seems a bit low for an ongoing concern.)
When asked in an interview with Fast Company whether Philips was willing to pay for the platform, George Yanni (Head of Connected Technology) was noncommittal at best. He mentioned that he “wasn’t sure how the process would go,” and that Philips has enjoyed a “long, very successful partnership with IFTTT, where we’ve both gotten a lot of value and publicity out of it, so we’ll just have to discuss with them to see how best we do that going forward.” Sounds to us like IFTTT might have a problem getting its most popular services to pony up.
While it remains to be seen whether IFTTT’s new business model is actually paying off, we can say with some certainty that the user experience is going downhill. Which brings us to a quick summary of the gripes we have with IFTTT:
1. Too many name changes to keep track
Since 2012, IFTTT has renamed itself more than a gangster on the lam. Over the past 5 years, we’ve seen the terminology evolve from “tasks and add-ins” to “recipes and ingredients” to “applets and services.”
There was also an awkward, short-lived phase in 2015 where IFTTT changed its name to “IF” and released a trio of companion apps – “DO Button” “DO Camera” and “DO Note.” The idea behind these apps was a button widget that you could set to do something in another app – for example, to automatically send a text to let your spouse know you’re leaving the office, or to make your phone ring in the event you need to excuse yourself from an awkward conversation. IFTTT soon reversed course again (perhaps realizing that maybe people didn’t want to download 4 separate apps -!) and re-rolled the DO functionality into the main app (which is back to being called IFTTT now.)
2. The process isn’t as easy as it used to be
When setting up triggers and actions, IFTTT used to have shortcuts to your favorite services, which made it easy to create new recipes – oops! — applets. That top spot has since been replaced with “popular” services, followed by a long list of all available services.
This is almost certainly designed to encourage more discovery, but that backfires when the list is so cluttered that it’s easier to use the search box than scroll to what you need.
A few of the many services you’ll scroll through to find what you actually need
3. Midnight rides and other glitches
It seems like IFTTT is generally less reliable since migrating to its new platform, possibly because it’s a challenge for service partners to keep up with changes to the API. There was one week in January where many of the applets we set up stopped responding to triggers altogether. Likewise, the Automatic car adapter initially worked quite well with IFTTT (we like to use it for logging business miles, or to be notified that the car just left the grocery store, so it’s too late to add anything to the list.)
Currently, IFTTT and Automatic are hit or miss – sometimes alerts happen promptly, and sometimes they get stuck and come sailing over the transom several hours later. (This is much like Leslie’s now-rogue doorbell-cam, which now rings more than a half hour AFTER being triggered.) Waking up at 2 a.m. to a notification that my car is halfway across town is an eye-roller, yet I’m always compelled to go make sure it’s still in the driveway.
4. We still can’t help but use it
Despite being irritated at the direction IFTTT is going, I still use it every day. In fact, it saved me a lot of pain just this morning, when I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a phone call from a robotic voice somewhere in the Silicon Valley, warning me that my seedlings were about to freeze. Unbeknownst to me, the circuit powering the greenhouse heater tripped, and the temperature inside the greenhouse was steadily dropping while I slept. If not for the alerts I set up, I surely would have woken to a greenhouse full of frozen tomatoes and peppers. It saved our seedlings last year too. So despite the frustrations, we’ll keep living with IFTTT (at least until something better comes along).