Seattle/San Francisco: Amazon.com Inc. defended the privacy features of its Alexa digital assistant – and introduced some new tools to reassure users – following months of debate about the practices of the technology giant and its largest competitors.
“We care about this,” Dave Limp, leader of the company’s devices business, said Wednesday at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. “Privacy is absolutely foundational to everything that we do in and around Alexa,”
Limp’s privacy pitch was unusual for a company most comfortable talking up product features and gushing about customers. But the e-commerce giant’s need for the trust of its users became clear as Limp introduced dozens of products and services designed to extend Alexa’s reach into more areas of life – even going so far as to embed microphones in ear buds, eyeglasses and rings. The executive also introduced updated versions of Amazon’s mainline Echo and Echo Dot smart speakers, and a beefed up version, the Echo Studio, aimed at music lovers.
Wednesday’s event marked the third year in a row Amazon has held a September press showcase for new gadgets, highlighting the growing importance of the company’s electronics franchise. Demand for Amazon’s devices, led by the hockey puck-sized Echo Dot and the Fire TV streaming stick, made it the third-top-selling brand by unit sales in the U.S. last year, according to estimates from researcher Euromonitor International. The company trailed only Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co.
Unlike those builders of high-end electronics, Amazon has achieved its scale primarily by selling low-priced devices that analysts estimate barely bring in enough profit to cover their manufacturing costs. The bet is a long-term wager on a virtuous cycle: more devices in more consumers’ hands means more viewers for Amazon’s original television shows, more subscribers to Amazon Prime, and more developer interest in building tools for Alexa.
For much of this year, though, the attention paid to Amazon’s voice assistant has focused on what customer data it was picking up, and how Amazon was using the information.
In April, Bloomberg News reported that Amazon had a team of people in offices around the world charged with reviewing a small sample of the consumer voice recordings heard by Alexa, a practice the company didn’t explicitly disclose. News reports in the following months highlighted similar practices at Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple, among other companies.
Limp introduced an opt-in feature that lets Alexa users automatically delete their verbal recordings regularly, on a rolling three-month or 18-month basis. Previously, Alexa users had to manually wipe out their stored voice recordings on a companion website. Amazon also added a privacy mode for its Ring home security cameras.
“We will continue to listen to customers, and I’m sure they’ll have more ideas for us” on new privacy features, Limp said.
The company introduced a new model of the best-selling Echo Dot with a visual clock built in, and a high-end speaker to rival Apple’s HomePod, Google Home Max and Sonos Inc. speakers, called Echo Studio.
A new Echo Show speaker comes with an 8-inch screen, adding to a line that already includes 5-inch and 10-inch displays. The Echo Flex, meantime, is a new category of the smart speaker that plugs directly into a wall outlet, unlike other Echo devices, which connect to outlets through a cable. The Echo Flex will integrate with new motion and light sensors and have an API so developers can write commands for it.
Beyond tweaks to its Echo lineup, Amazon redoubled its efforts to take Alexa on the road, launching ear buds, eyeglasses, and even a ring that come equipped with the digital assistant. Alexa is perhaps the most well known voice assistant in the U.S., but its profile suffers from Amazon’s lack of a smartphone. Google and Apple, whose software powers almost all the handsets sold each year, have captive audiences for Google Assistant and Siri, which come preinstalled on devices.
Limp’s roughly 90-minute presentation suggested there is hardly a corner of the high tech industry safe from Amazon’s desires for Alexa or its other products, from software for schools to a new Wi-Fi Mesh Router, and integration with GM cars and trucks. (But no waffle maker, Limp joked.)
Amazon added a different kitchen appliance to its portfolio: a smart oven with an air fryer. Last year, the company announced its Alexa Microwave and said it quickly became the most popular microwave sold on Amazon.com. The new smart oven integrates with Alexa and will include an Echo Dot so users don’t need extra devices to make it work with voice control.
The beefed-up Echo Studio, aimed at music lovers, costs $200 and comes with 3D audio. Shares of Sonos, whose main business is digital-audio speakers, dropped 5% following Amazon’s announcement.
Many owners of smart speakers use the devices primarily to listen to music or stream radio stations or podcasts. Amazon has lately sharpened its focus on audiophiles, launching a high-definition music streaming service earlier this month and, at a similar gadget event a year ago, introducing a range of subwoofers, amplifiers and other electronics designed to enhance Alexa’s profile as a music hub. Still, those devices haven’t been mass-market hits, and some of them are among the more poorly reviewed gadgets in Amazon’s Echo line.
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