Home Technology–Amazon Moves Fast

Amazon’s surprisingly successful (relatively speaking) line of Echo products just added a new member of the family.  As Google pokes along trying to make the Home relevant, and Microsoft won’t enter the market until the Fall with Harmon Kardon’s Invoke, Amazon already has the original Echo, the Echo Dot, the Echo Look (which is a camera that will help you shop for clothes), and the Tap. In addition, certain Fire TVs have Alexa built in, as does the Amazon app on many Smart Phones.

Amazon, in other words, has moved very aggressively to put its voice-recognition in your hands as quickly as possible. And now Amazon has debuted the Echo Show.  The Show is a touch screen-enable version of Alexa, and there’s potentially some interesting functionality. According to Amazon, you can watch some videos, see music lyrics, enable security cameras, use it as a home-intercom device, and even make video calls to other Show devices.

Aesthetically Displeasing

Right off the bat, though, it’s clear this is very much a first-gen product. Where the Echo, Dot, and Tap are aesthetically pleasing cylinders with glowing-blue orbs, the Show is…so very retro. And, in my opinion, not a good way.  Obviously, the cylindrical form factor doesn’t work well for a video-based device, but… surely there was a better design out there than what’s being offered.

Amazon Show
Amazon’s Echo Show

To me, it looks like a Macintosh Classic that’s been squished.

Mac Classic
The Macintosh Classic

Privacy Concerns for Amazon

Of course, any discussion of the Echo–and, really, of any of these always-listening home assistants–needs to include concerns for the privacy of the home user.

Last year, law enforcement officers in Arkansas sought to obtain data from Amazon in the middle of a murder investigation because they believed that the Echo–or Amazon’s servers– might have recorded evidence. With the addition of video capabilities to these devices, consumers need to be confident that their movements in the home aren’t being monitored. (The same concerns go for things like the Kinect, anyone’s laptop, webcams, et cetera.)

Ringtones and ASCAP

Browsing through Yahoo! News this morning, a PC World story about ringtones caught my eye.  I’ve always thought that ringtones occupy an interesting place in our culture.  Remember when Apple raised its prices from $.99 to $1.29 and there was a fair bit of howling?  I always thought it was a bit odd that people would moan about paying $1.29 for a full song that they can play over and over again, when there are scads and scads of people willing to fork over at least twice that much to hear the song in terrible quality for only about 30 seconds or so.  (AT & T’s Media Mall; Verizon’s Media Store; Sprint’s Digital Lounge)

One would think, given that people who buy ringtones are paying a premium for the license (and yes, it’s a license) to have their phones pump out music, that would satisfy ASCAP.

Nope.

ASCAP is suing AT&T over ringtones, saying that a royalty is owed every time the phone rings, because, in ASCAP’s mind, such ringing is tantamount to a public performance.  Bollocks, says the EFF.  Copyright law, it argues in an amicus brief, does not reach “public performances ‘without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage’,” sort of like driving with your windows down.

Now, getting at what sort of license you actually have when you get a ringtone from AT&T is pretty difficult.  Sprint, for its part, clearly states what you are able to do with your ringtone:

Product License

This is a limited, nonexclusive, nontransferable license to use this content for personal use until it expires, subject to any restrictions provided with the product purchased and in the Premium Services Terms of Use.  You agree not to sell, transfer, copy, publicly perform, create derivative works from or otherwise reproduce, modify or revise the content.  The content provided is protected under applicable laws, including copyright laws.

(Source)

Verizon has a limited amount of information about its ringtones, and it’s a bit harder to find than Sprint’s; I ended up just using Bing to search for the license:

Ringtones Terms and Conditions

Subject to Customer Agreement.  Each ringtone purchased is only valid for use on the handset to which it is delivered.  The ringtone will be delivered to your handset via a MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) message.  If your account has SMS or MMS block enabled at the time you confirm this purchase you will not be able to receive the MMS message containing the ringtone.  However, your account will still be billed.  You must save the ringtone to your handset, otherwise when you delete the MMS message containing the ringtone, you will no longer have access to the ringtone and will need to purchase it again if you want to use the ringtone.  Please note, based on the type of handset you are using the sound quality of the ringtone you are purchasing may differ from the sound quality available through the Preview on the Verizon Wireless website.

(Source)

AT&T’s license, also is difficult to find.  In fact, I’m just going to give up on finding it.

The main point is, whether ASCAP is actually sincere about their concerns that ringtones might comprise a public performance, it seems like all they want to do is gouge money out of cell providers, especially since they don’t appear to have any notion of actually going after consumers for the public performance.

On a related note, I wondered if “ringtone” is a registered trademark of anyone, given the kerfluffle over Intel’s use of the term “netbook” I mentioned a while back.  Surprisingly, there appears not to be a registration on “ringtone” in and of itself.  There is an application for one, but it doesn’t appear to be registered yet, taken out by Young Executives, Inc.  (Serial No. 77589426).  Interesting.

New Shuffle

I’m not sure why Apple product releases always get top billing.  Okay, actually, I know why.  It’s because a lot of people own them.  And they’re really gleamy.  But they’re tied to iTunes, which, in my opinion, is a terrible program.  But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.

In any event, Apple has released a new Shuffle, which is a wee little device, less than two inches tall, and just over a quarter-inch thick.  The Shuffle has always been criticized for not displaying the track names for you to consult, so, I suppose to counter those criticisms, Apple has included something called VoiceOver, which will say the name of the song.  I suppose that helps a little.  Storage has been bumped to 4 gigabytes, which is nice and roomy, and it costs about $80.  That’s a decent price, too.  The controls to the device, however, are stuck on the cord for the headphones.  This means that you’re locked into Apple’s headphones, which apparently aren’t terrible, or potential third-party manufacturers, and that if they fail, or you break them or lose them, replacement costs are going to be higher.

For my money, though, I think the Sansa Clip is a far superior product, if you’re not tied to iTunes.  It, too, costs about $80 for the 4 gigabyte model, but you get an OLED screen that allows you to see what’s playing, an FM tuner, a voice recorder, and an adjustable equalizer.  It’ll also play mp3s, oggs, flacs, wmas, and Audible files, and while it plays nice with Windows Media Player, it’s not necessary; you can drag and drop files to your heart’s content.  It also has a clip on the back that lets you just clip it on.

Full disclosure, I own a Sansa Clip, but I’m not a shill for SanDisk.