Amazon’s Alexa is more relevant than it’s ever been because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The giant retailer’s hardware execs hammered that point over and over Thursday during Amazon’s fall product launch event, emphasizing the value of smart home features for those of us who are stuck at home. And they doubled down on gear and services to entertain us, help us connect and keep an eye on our homes.
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“Nobody anticipated the pandemic, and we certainly didn’t plan for it,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s hardware chief, said in an interview after the event. “But I think our homes are now our offices, they’re our schools, they’re our movie theaters. A lot of our products became even more applicable in this environment.”
Obviously, Amazon is OK with this development because it keeps people hooked to its portfolio of services and products. Limp said video streams are way up and billions of hours are watched each month through Amazon’s Fire TV devices. The same goes for book reading on Kindle gadgets and listening to music on Echo speakers. Toss in all the stuff people are buying online on Amazon.com, and quarantine has worked out fairly well for the company.
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Amazon’s hardware chief talks Alexa, privacy and flying…
Some might say Alexa’s growing influence is a bad thing. It’s troubling that one of the biggest and wealthiest corporations on the planet has so many connections to our home life, giving it even more ability to collect plenty of data about us. There are a lot of security problems — such as an Amazon-brand Ring camera being hijacked by a hacker — to give consumers pause.
But there are reasons to be grateful too. These types of products won’t replace visiting loved ones in person, but they sure are helpful for communicating when we have to be remote.
Ultimately, consumers will decide how much or how little Alexa they want in their lives. If history provides any clues, they will want a lot more, especially as the pandemic prompts interest in videoconferencing, security systems and streaming services.
“The pandemic brought everything to Amazon’s business model,” Bret Kinsella, founder of voice tech site Voicebot.ai, said of Amazon’s new devices. “If you look at our times and you look at just responding to customer needs and interest, which is what Amazon focuses on first and foremost, I’d say they really nailed it.”
Amazon is banking on that happening. At its event, the company introduced plenty of new ideas that could work well during the altered reality the pandemic has caused.
The company unveiled a new program called Care Hub, an Alexa feature that lets people watch over their family members from afar. After you and a family member agree to set up a Care Hub connection, you’ll be able to monitor that person’s activity feed with Echo devices. If your family member doesn’t make any Alexa queries by a certain time of day, you can get an alert. The family member can also set you up as an emergency contact and reach you by saying, “Alexa, call for help.”
“We can all relate to the idea that there’s a lot of family that we can’t see right now. Even if they were nearby, we wouldn’t be able to see them. I’m in that situation,” said Daniel Rausch, Amazon’s vice president of smart home. He mentioned that he’s testing out the service now with his mom.
Alexa hardware executive Miriam Daniel said her team wanted to help with remote learning, so it created Reading Sidekick. The feature, which works with hundreds of books, allows Alexa to read along with children, encouraging them if they are doing well or offering support if they are struggling.
Amazon also worked to make its devices useful for video conferencing and communication, allowing video calling on your TV through a Fire TV Cube device and a Logitech webcam. The $250 Echo Show 10 smart display provides a 10-inch screen for video calls and is equipped with Skype and group calling. It’ll get Zoom later this fall.
A new set of Eero router devices should also help people get more reliable connections at home.
Because the pandemic has us spending more time at home, Amazon’s Ring unit was sure to get a prominent spot at the hardware event. Ring’s surveillance equipment and police partnerships are already a worry for privacy advocates. Their concerns are likely to get directed at the $250 Ring Always Home Cam, an autonomous drone that flies around inside your home to keep an eye on many rooms on a set flight path. The device, which is coming out next year, will even automatically fly somewhere in the home if it’s triggered by a suspicious motion.
That concept may be too much for plenty of customers. But the $200 Ring Car Cam probably won’t be. The Car Cam flips the script on Ring’s relationships with the police. The dash-mounted camera will record your traffic stop if you say, “Alexa, I’m being pulled over.” That device could provide a valuable layer of transparency at a time when police brutality and excessive force have become a leading social concern. In June, Apple introduced a similar feature on its iPhone.
Privacy advocates have called out Amazon for creating a bevy of devices with cameras and microphones built into them. When asked about these concerns, Limp noted his team has done a lot to make its products more secure, including adding two-factor authentication and stronger passwords for Ring.
“We’re going to have to continue to invent in the privacy front and the security front,” he said. “You’re never done.”
With the holiday season and Prime Day coming up, Amazon will find out soon enough if customers agree with Limp’s sentiment. And they’ll decide how many of these new devices they want to bring into their quarantined lives.
No new confirmed cases of COVID-19 are being reported by the Brant County Health Unit for the second consecutive day.
The number of active cases, those that considered infectious, dropped on Friday to 16, a decrease of three from the day before.
No one with an active case of the virus is in hospital.
There have been 225 lab-confirmed cases in Brantford-Brant since the pandemic began, with 204 of them considered resolved.
There are five local deaths associated with the virus.
An outbreak declared on Oct. 15 at Hardy Terrace Long-term Care Home in Mount Pleasant, where one staff member tested positive for the coronavirus continues.
Of the confirmed local cases, 175 people are from Brantford and 50 from Brant County.
In the majority of cases (54 per cent), the virus was contracted through close contact with an infected person, followed by 22 per cent contracted through community spread. Fourteen per cent of cases are associated with an outbreak and 10 per cent through travel. The means of transmission in 0.4 per cent of cases is pending.
Those between the ages of 20 and 39 account for 39 per cent of cases, followed by 31 per cent aged 40 to 59, 15 per cent aged 60 to 79, 11 per cent under age 20 and four per cent aged 80 and over.
There had been 31,993 COVID-19 tests conducted as of Friday morning at the Brant Community Healthcare System’s assessment centre.
The latest posted numbers from Six Nations of the Grand River indicate there are 26 active cases of COVID-19 on the territory. The total number of confirmed Six Nations cases is 74 since the start of the the pandemic, with 48 of them considered resolved. One Six Nations resident has died of COVID-19.
The launch of Apple’s iPhone 12 series confirmed something rumored for months prior: there will be no iPhone 12 charger in the box. When you buy an iPhone 12 in the US and most other countries, regardless of the model, it comes with what you see in the image above (and some additional paperwork). That’s it.
During the iPhone 12 launch event, Apple made a big to-do about this change. It put Lisa Jackson — the company’s VP of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives — on the roof of Apple HQ to talk about just how eco-friendly the company is. In her words, removing the charger, as well as the usually included wired EarPods, “reduces carbon emissions and avoids the mining and use of precious materials.” Additionally, she pointed out that removing those items enabled a “smaller, lighter iPhone box,” which allows the company to fit more products onto a single shipping pallet, further reducing its environmental impact.
Honestly, seeing Mrs. Jackson on the roof of Apple HQ surrounded by solar panels talking about how much Apple cares for the environment seems pretty convincing. However, Apple’s decision to remove the iPhone 12 charger and EarPods isn’t nearly as environmentally friendly as it makes it seem. It’s very possible that the change could allow Apple to earn more money in the end, making the motivation for these changes somewhat dubious.
First, let me explain why this big new change isn’t as great of a step in the battle against e-waste as Apple is cracking it up to be. Then, I’ll talk a bit about what Apple could have done instead.
Apple is pushing the narrative that its removal of in-box iPhone accessories is all about the environment. However, it is neglecting to mention a few other things related to that move:
It is still making the charger: The iPhone 12 charger still exists, it’s just not in the box. Apple is producing them and selling them for $19 each.
A lot of current iPhone chargers won’t work: The cable that comes in the box with your iPhone 12 is a Lightning-to-USB-C system. This is incompatible with every charger you previously received with another iPhone model. The sole exception is the iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max. In other words, unless you’re upgrading from an 11 Pro, you won’t be able to use the cable in the box unless — you guessed it — you buy a USB-C charger.
The iPhone 12 can charge quickly, but likely not with what you own: The iPhone 12 lineup is capable of charging at 20W with the proper cable and charger. Apple provides you the cable for this, but not the charger. If you use an older 5W charger/cable from every other iPhone (or even the 18W system from the 11 Pro/11 Pro Max), you won’t see those 20W speeds. Once again, you’ll need to buy a charger from Apple for this. If you want to buy a third-party charger to give Apple the cold shoulder, it will need to be “Made for iPhone” under the MFi program. Otherwise, your phone will yell at you for using uncertified hardware.
Those three aspects of Apple’s decision to remove the iPhone 12 charger won’t be highlighted by Lisa Jackson while she’s on the roof of Apple HQ. After all, it’s hard to argue that environmentalism is the reasoning while simultaneously asking for $19 for a charger that was previously included for free.
Ultimately, Apple simply didn’t go far enough on behalf of the environment. Removing the charger and the EarPods is a big step in the right direction, sure, but the effort is hollow without going all the way. Here are two ways Apple could have done this better.
Option #1: Transparent, but still not eco-friendly
One of the biggest issues I have with this situation is Apple’s attempts to capitalize on it financially. First, the company is saving money by not packaging the iPhone 12 charger or the Apple EarPods in the box. Then, it’s saving more money by making the box smaller and spending less on shipping fees. Finally, it stands to then earn additional revenue by selling the charger and EarPods separately for $19 each.
Don’t forget that the new MagSafe system can also charge your iPhone 12. There’s no MagSafe charger in the box, either, and buying one of those will set you back $39.
This all makes it seem as if Apple’s motivations aren’t about the environment at all. The easiest way for Apple to avoid this would be to offer the charger and the EarPods for free via an aftermarket system. If the company made it so you could stop into an Apple Store with your iPhone 12 and get a free 20W charger and a set of EarPods, it would eliminate the implication that Apple stands to financially prosper from this decision. Invariably, not every iPhone 12 buyer would do this. This, in turn, would have the effect Apple says it wants: the creation of fewer chargers and headphones. At the same time, the move would seem more genuinely environmentally conscious, rather than a way to get an extra $40 from customers.
Of course, this still isn’t as environmentally friendly as it could be. The chargers are still being produced. They also require their own packaging and need to be shipped from China to the rest of the world. The environmental impact is still there.
For Apple to truly make a stand for the environment above its own bottom line, it would need to take more drastic measures. It would need to make iPhones compatible with everything else.
Option #2: Transparent and eco-friendly
While the option posed above gets rid of the financial incentive for Apple’s removal of the iPhone 12 charger, it would only partially help the environment. The cables and chargers would still need to be created, and the compatibility issues with Lightning-to-USB-C would still exist. For the company to truly make the iPhone more environmentally friendly, it would need to do what environmentalists have long been asking for: eliminate the proprietary Lightning connector and go all-in on USB-C.
Yes, USB-C is still a mess of a system. However, USB-C is still better than Lightning in that every cable fits in every USB-C device and does the bare minimum: deliver power and transfer data.
The European Commission has long been fighting to create legislation that would prevent Apple (and any other company) from releasing products that require proprietary cabling. A one-cable solution is not only environmentally friendly but also user-friendly. If you had one cable that could charge your phone, laptop, tablet, and e-reader regardless of the brands of any of those devices, wouldn’t that be far better than what we have today?
With most of the electronics industry embracing USB-C at this point, Apple is the only major holdout with Lightning. If the company ditched Lightning on iPhones it would be a move towards sustainability that could never be mistaken for profit-motivated change. And hey, it already did it with iPads — what’s stopping it from doing it with iPhones?
iPhone 12 charger is gone, but what’s coming instead?
Let me close this out by making something perfectly clear: the core idea of Apple removing the in-box charger from the iPhone 12 lineup is, in itself, a good thing. Apple is right in saying that not producing more chargers than necessary is better for the environment. Android OEMs are making fun of Apple at the moment, but we (and you) know that it’s only a matter of time before they also remove the charger from their own phones. Apple and other OEMs might not do it because it’s the right thing to do, but at least they’re doing something. Apple should be commended for leading the way here.
However, there’s still so much that Apple (and every electronics manufacturer) could be doing. Getting rid of Lightning and other proprietary connectors would be a huge step in the right direction. Government mandates requiring electronic OEMs to only use one type of system would also be terrific. More ubiquitous recycling systems would also be great, as would better and cheaper access to repairs (something Apple has repeatedlyblocked) and longer software upgrade cycles. There’s still a ton of work to do.
My concern now, though, is with MagSafe. Apple’s next big move could be to simply remove the Lightning port from future iPhones altogether and use MagSafe as its charging/data transfer solution of the future. Of course, that would put us right back where we started: with Apple having a proprietary platform that no one else has. One that will need to be built and shipped for the basic functionality of the phone.
The bottom line is that it isn’t likely that Apple or any other electronic OEM will do right by the environment on its own. Apple had the option to make big steps here, and it didn’t for whatever reason. Despite its literal rooftop posturing, Apple’s profits appear to trump its care for the environment in the end.
It’s odd Apple is dropping the 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 mini later this year, but it’s possible the company ran into COVID-19-related manufacturing issues. Apple also might have opted to release the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro first because they’re the tech giant’s best selling smartphones.
We’re curious if you’re waiting for the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max, or if you plan to buy one of Apple’s more recently released handsets?
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