The new Kindle Paperwhite is thinner and waterproof

The Voyage may be dead, but the Kindle line still has some life left in it. This time last year, Amazon upgraded the high-end Oasis model, and now the mid-range Paperwhite is getting a little love.The workhorse of the company’s devoted e-reader line just got a handful of upgrades that will give users a more […]

The Voyage may be dead, but the Kindle line still has some life left in it. This time last year, Amazon upgraded the high-end Oasis model, and now the mid-range Paperwhite is getting a little love.The workhorse of the company’s devoted e-reader line just got a handful of upgrades that will give users a more premium experience, while keeping the device’s starting price at $130.

Waterproofing is the most exciting among the upgrades here. Remember that time four years ago when we ran a story with the headline, “This Waterproof Kindle Paperwhite Is Humanity’s Greatest Achievement?” Well, this is that potential fulfilled — now directly from Amazon. The reader sports an IPX8 rating, meaning it can be dunked in two meters of water for up to an hour.

That bit comes, in part, courtesy of another key upgrade. Like the Oasis before it, the reader sports a flush front, rather than the raised bezels found on older, cheaper models. The move gives the model an overall more premium feel and should help keep water from invading its circuits. It also goes a ways toward making this the thinnest and lightest Paperwhite, as well.

Another key change is the bump from four LEDs to five. Seems like a small thing, but it goes a ways toward keeping the front lighting more uniform across the board, versus the more patchy consistency found in earlier models.

Performance should be roughly the same on this model, though storage has been doubled to 8GB. There’s a 32GB model as well, for those who really aren’t into cloud storage. That move comes largely because the model is also getting Bluetooth, so users can listen to audio books through Audible using the device. The Whispersync feature makes sure users are up to date with both the text and audio versions.

There are a couple of tweaks to the software, including an updated home page with more customized recommendations, along with the ability to save different setting profiles.

[gallery ids="1732345,1732344,1732343,1732337,1732338,1732339,1732340,1732341,1732335,1732336,1732342"]

Pre-orders start today, and the new Paperwhite will begin shipping November 9. That $130 version includes Special Offers (ads), which Amazon says most customers are still opting into. Prices go up from there.

Amazon puts $10M in Closed Loop Fund to make recycling easier in more American cities

Amazon announced today that it has invested $10 million in Closed Loop Fund, which finances the creation of recycling infrastructure and services in U.S. cities. In a statement, the e-commerce behemoth claimed that its investment will keep one million tons of recyclable material out of landfills and “eliminate the equivalent of two million metric tons of […]

Amazon announced today that it has invested $10 million in Closed Loop Fund, which finances the creation of recycling infrastructure and services in U.S. cities. In a statement, the e-commerce behemoth claimed that its investment will keep one million tons of recyclable material out of landfills and “eliminate the equivalent of two million metric tons of CO2 by 2028, equivalent to shutting down a coal-fired power plant for six months.”

Founded in 2014, Closed Loop Fund invests in companies and organizations working on services, infrastructure, or technology that will make recycling accessible to more communities in the U.S. Only a few cities have made recycling mandatory and in many municipalities, trucking trash to the landfill is still much cheaper than offering curbside recycling. According to Amazon’s announcement, about half of Americans “lack access to convenient, sufficient curbside recycling at their homes.” Over the next 10 years, Closed Loop Fund wants to save more than 8 million tons of waste from landfills by making recycling easier for 18 million households.

In a statement, Closed Loop Fund CEO Ron Gonen said “Amazon’s investment in Closed Loop Fund is another example of how recycling is good business in America. Companies are seeing that they can meet consumer demand and reduce costs while supporting a more sustainable future and growing good jobs across the country. We applaud Amazon’s commitment to cut waste, and we hope their leadership drives other brands and retailers to follow suit.”

As the largest online retailer in the U.S. by far, Amazon packages produce a massive amount of cardboard and packaging waste every year. More than 5 billion items were shipped through Amazon Prime last year, while the company’s fulfillment and shipping network increased by more than 30% in square footage.

The burden placed on overwhelmed municipalities and waste collection services that need to dispose of packaging from Amazon and other e-commerce stores has been dubbed the “Amazon Effect” and blamed for contributing to the decline in the cardboard recycling rate. According to the American Forestry and Packaging Association, the recycling rate for cardboard fell to 88.8% in 2017 from 92.9% in 1999.

Amazon claims its Frustration-Free Packaging program, which offers brands incentives to use less wasteful packaging, has eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials and made it possible to avoid more than 500 million shipping boxes since launching 10 years ago. But with its rapid pace of growth—Amazon is expected to reach $258.22 billion in U.S. retail sales this year, accounting for 49.1 percent of all online retail spending in the country and 5 percent of all retail sales—there is still a lot of work to do if it really wants to stop contributing to packaging waste.

Jeff Bezos is just fine taking the Pentagon’s $10B JEDI cloud contract

Some tech companies might have a problem taking money from the Department of Defense, but Amazon isn’t one of them, as CEO Jeff Bezos made clear today at the Wired25 conference. Just last week, Google pulled out of the running for the Pentagon’s $10 billion, 10-year JEDI cloud contract, but Bezos suggested that he was happy […]

Some tech companies might have a problem taking money from the Department of Defense, but Amazon isn’t one of them, as CEO Jeff Bezos made clear today at the Wired25 conference. Just last week, Google pulled out of the running for the Pentagon’s $10 billion, 10-year JEDI cloud contract, but Bezos suggested that he was happy to take the government’s money.

Bezos has been surprisingly quiet about the contract up until now, but his company has certainly attracted plenty of attention from the companies competing for the JEDI deal. Just last week IBM filed a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office claiming that the contract was stacked in favor one vendor. And while it didn’t name it directly, the clear implication was that company was the one owned by Bezos.

Last summer Oracle also filed a protest and also complained that they believed the government had set up the contract to favor Amazon, a charge spokesperson Heather Babb denied. “The JEDI Cloud final RFP reflects the unique and critical needs of DOD, employing the best practices of competitive pricing and security. No vendors have been pre-selected,” she said last month.

While competitors are clearly worried about Amazon, which has a substantial lead in the cloud infrastructure market, the company itself has kept quiet on the deal until now. Bezos set his company’s support in patriotic terms and one of leadership.

“Sometimes one of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision, even when it’s unpopular. And if if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” he said.

“I know everyone is conflicted about the current politics in this country, but this country is a gem,” he added.

While Google tried to frame its decision as taking a principled stand against misuse of technology by the government, Bezos chose another tack, stating that all technology can be used for good or ill. “Technologies are always two-sided. You know there are ways they can be misused as well as used, and this isn’t new,” Bezos told Wired25.

He’s not wrong of course, but it’s hard not to look at the size of the contract and see it as purely a business decision on his part. Amazon is as hot for that $10 billion contract as any of its competitors. What’s different in this talk is that Bezos made it sound like a purely patriotic decision, rather than economic one.

The Pentagon’s JEDI contract could have a value of up to $10 billion with a maximum length of 10 years. The contract is framed as a two year deal with two three-year options and a final one for two years. The DOD can opt out before exercising any of the options.

Bidding for the contract closed last Friday. The DOD is expected to choose the winning vendor next April.

Amazon debuts a retail site for ‘Shark Tank’ products

Inventor Jamie Siminoff was rejected by the sharks on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2013 when trying to make a deal for his video doorbell startup. This year, Amazon bought his company, Ring, for a billion dollars. Now, Amazon is looking for another way to tap into breakout products from the popular TV show – by becoming […]

Inventor Jamie Siminoff was rejected by the sharks on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2013 when trying to make a deal for his video doorbell startup. This year, Amazon bought his company, Ring, for a billion dollars. Now, Amazon is looking for another way to tap into breakout products from the popular TV show – by becoming an official retailer partner for “Shark Tank.” The newly announced deal allows Amazon to showcase past and future “Shark Tank” products on its website, and come with a $15,000 Amazon Web Services (AWS) credit for each eligible “Shark Tank” entrepreneur.

The products will be available in a new Shark Tank Collection on Amazon Launchpad, its platform for hardware and physical goods startups, which first arrived in 2015. The idea is to offer a dedicated place on Amazon where consumers can shop products from up-and-coming companies, like Bluesmart’s luggage, eero’s Home Wi-Fi system, Casper mattresses, and hundreds more.

This new collection is not the first time Amazon has featured “Shark Tank” products on its site, however.

Also in 2015, Amazon launched a new online store called Amazon Exclusives, which featured a variety of new brands, including products from “Shark Tank,” like Tower Paddle Boards, for example.

At the time, the “Shark Tank” merchandise selection was limited, though.

With today’s launch, that’s changing.

Amazon says the new collection features over 70 products that successfully received funding from “Shark Tank” seasons 1 through 9, and new products from season 10 and beyond will be featured here in the future.

The products available today include things like smart changing pad and scale Hatch Baby, coffee enhancer Third Wave Water, and storage bags from Stasher, among others. You can even sort and filter products by those that were funded by two or more sharks, or those with over $250,000 in funding.

“For the first time ever, ‘Shark Tank’ has a store on Amazon.com dedicated to helping our entrepreneurs scale their businesses and highlight top products from the show,” said “Shark Tank” investor, Barbara Corcoran, in a statement. “We are excited for the Amazon Launchpad Shark Tank Collection to bring products from our entrepreneurs to retail for customers and fans of the series.”

For Amazon, the deal isn’t just a way to redirect “Shark Tank”-related shopping searches to its site, following an airing of the TV show. It also gives Amazon a first-hand way of seeing which products are becoming viable consumer hits – something that could open the door for an acquisition or further deal-making at some later point, perhaps.

Of course, that would require the TV sharks to not be quite so short-sighted – after all, they thought Ring was overvalued, and passed. (They’re not interested in companies that require too much capital, apparently.) In hindsight, it still seems like a miss on their parts. And with the start of Season 10, the sharks again passed on a product Amazon could like – Boxlock, a smart lock for securing packages left at your doorstep. After all, not everyone will want to let delivery drivers into their home.

“The Amazon Launchpad program is all about empowering creators and inventors, enabling them to reach hundreds of millions of customers,” said Jim Adkins, Vice President, Amazon. “By teaming up with ‘Shark Tank,’ we are making it fun and easy for fans of the show to discover a wide variety of unique innovations and cutting-edge products,” he said.

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg? TC: Yes Portal: Dialling Mark… TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt. MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch… TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark! MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I […]

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg? TC: Yes Portal: Dialling Mark… TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt. MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch… TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark! MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I […]

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

Amazon patents Alexa tech to tell if you’re sick, depressed and sell you meds

Echo could analyze your voice to detect a “physical or emotional abnormality.”

Amazon's Echo smart speaker with its blue light ring illuminated.

An Amazon Echo. (credit: Adam Bowie)

Amazon has patented technology that could let Alexa analyze your voice to determine whether you are sick or depressed and sell you products based on your physical or emotional condition.

The patent, titled "Voice-based determination of physical and emotional characteristics of users," was issued on Tuesday this week; Amazon filed the patent application in March 2017.

The patent describes a voice assistant that can detect "abnormal" physical or emotional conditions. "For example, physical conditions such as sore throats and coughs may be determined based at least in part on a voice input from the user, and emotional conditions such as an excited emotional state or a sad emotional state may be determined based at least in part on voice input from a user," the patent says. "A cough or sniffle, or crying, may indicate that the user has a specific physical or emotional abnormality."

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

BoxLock secures your booty against porch pirates

This clever – if expensive – product is called the BoxLock and it is a keyless padlock that lets your package delivery person scan and drop off your packages into a locked box. The system essentially watches for a shipping event and then waits for the right barcode before opening. Once the delivery person scans […]

This clever – if expensive – product is called the BoxLock and it is a keyless padlock that lets your package delivery person scan and drop off your packages into a locked box. The system essentially watches for a shipping event and then waits for the right barcode before opening. Once the delivery person scans the package, the lock opens, the delivery person sticks the package in a box or shed (not included) and locks it back up. You then go and grab your package at your leisure.

The lock costs $129.

The company appeared on everyone’s favorite show, Shark Tank, where they demonstrated the system with a fake door and fake UPS dude.

The internal battery lasts 30 days on one charge and it connects to your phone and house via Wi-Fi. While the system does require a box – it’s called BoxLock, after all, not LockBox – it’s a clever solution to those pesky porch pirates who endlessly steal my YorkieLoversBox deliveries.

Amazon says wage hike ‘more than compensates’ for loss of bonuses

Last week, Amazon addressed growing backlash against unfair warehouse wages by announcing plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The news was largely lauded as a positive step by critics including Senator Bernie Sanders, who had helped push the company in that direction with strongly worded legislation. The move was still met […]

Last week, Amazon addressed growing backlash against unfair warehouse wages by announcing plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The news was largely lauded as a positive step by critics including Senator Bernie Sanders, who had helped push the company in that direction with strongly worded legislation.

The move was still met with criticism by some, including Amazon workers who noted that, along with the wage increase, the retail giant would also be removing bonuses and stock grants. Employees vocalized their concern, causing Amazon to further address the move. The company sent a letter to Sanders insisting that employees would still come out on top.

“Again, all hourly operations and customer service employees will see an increase in their base pay, as well as in their total compensation,” Amazon SVP Jay Carney said in the letter, obtained by the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post. “We are also proud to continue to provide our industry-leading benefits, including comprehensive healthcare, up to 20 weeks of paid parental leave and our Career Choice program, which pre-pays 95 percent of associates’ tuition for courses in high-demand fields.”

The letter does on to explain that the the increase in wages “more than compensates” for the workers’ loss of benefit. Of course, the impact on individual workers is dependent on a number of factors, including how much they made prior to the increase. Those making, say, $14 an hour prior to the increase may only receive a $1 raise, which fails to make up for the loss of benefits.

The move appears to have a larger averse impact on long time employees of the company, though Amazon has vowed to reach out to workers to better explain the changes.

Update: Amazon has reached out to offer the full (lengthy) statement.

All hourly Operations and Customer Service employees will see an increase in their total compensation as a result of this announcement. The significant increase in hourly cash wages effective November 1 more than compensates for the phase out of incentive pay and future RSU grants.

In addition, because it’s no longer incentive-based, the compensation will be more immediate and predictable. Employees who have previous grants that are vesting in 2019 and 2020 are keeping those grants, so they will benefit from both the value of those shares when they vest and the new increase in cash compensation. Some employees have benefited from a bull market and the unusually strong appreciation of Amazon’s stock price in recent years. This is a good outcome for those employees, but such stock price appreciation is by no means guaranteed to continue. Stock markets and individual stocks can go up, but they can also go down. For employees who want to invest in stock for the possibility of future growth, we will be rolling out a direct stock purchase plan in 2019.

We moved quickly to get this information to our teams as fast as possible knowing there would be certain cases that would need to be adjusted between the announcement and November 1st when this new $15 minimum takes effect. As we have said throughout this process we have been adjusting site by site and person by person as needed since the announcement to ensure everyone experiences the benefit of this change.

Review: The tiny $149 Echo Sub is a huge audio upgrade

Want to make your music more interesting? Add a subwoofer. That’s what Amazon did and, suddenly, the entire Echo smart speaker lineup is more interesting. If you were not impressed with the sound of an Echo, consider trying again when the Echo is paired with an Echo Sub. The subwoofer changes the game. The Echo […]

Want to make your music more interesting? Add a subwoofer. That’s what Amazon did and, suddenly, the entire Echo smart speaker lineup is more interesting. If you were not impressed with the sound of an Echo, consider trying again when the Echo is paired with an Echo Sub. The subwoofer changes the game.

The Echo Sub is a small, round sub covered in the same fabric as the Echo speakers. Currently it’s only available in dark gray. It’s designed to be sat on the floor or a sturdy desk and serve up the low notes the Echo speakers are unable to reproduce. The Echo Sub does its job. When paired with an Echo speaker, the audio is more full and enjoyable, well-balanced and healthy. The Echo Sub is a must-have for Echo owners.

Review

Amazon provided TechCrunch with a pair of $99 Echo speakers and the $129 Echo Sub. This kit is available for $300, but Amazon also sells the Echo Sub bundle with two Echo Plus devices for $329 — that’s the bundle to get since the Plus models have larger speaker drivers. I suspect the difference will be worth the additional $30.

Setting up the system takes about 25 minutes. Each speaker is individually added to the Alexa smartphone app. Once all three speakers are installed, they have to be bundled in a virtual group. The app’s prompts make it easy, but I found the process buggy. When trying to combine the speakers into a group, the app would sometimes fail to locate one of the speakers. Other times, the two speakers were found, but the sub was not. Eventually, I got it configured and ended up with two Echo speakers running in stereo and a subwoofer handling the low-end sounds.

The difference an additional speaker and subwoofer makes is lovely. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Stereo is how music was supposed to be enjoyed.

Years ago the Jambox and its countless Bluetooth speaker clones convinced a generation that one speaker is all that’s needed for music. That’s a lie. One speaker gets the job done, but two, running in stereo will always be better. And in this case, with the addition of a subwoofer, it’s much, much better.

Des Rocs’ Let me Live takes full advantage of the newfound soundstage. The left and right speakers explode with activity, creating an immersive listening experience that’s not possible with any single speaker from an Amazon Echo to Apple HomePod. The stereo arrangement lets the music breath.

AKA George’s Stone Cold Classic comes alive with this setup. The Echo Sub provides dramatically more depth to the track while the stereo Echos offer a full experience. Need more proof? Turn to Van Halen’s Panama. A single speaker cannot give the same experience; the channels get muddled and mixed. But when played in true stereo with the backup of a woofer, the David Lee Roth comes alive.

I’m impressed with the sound quality of this $300 bundle. A lot of the heavy lifting is offloaded to the Echo Sub, allowing the Echo speakers to handle the mids and highs, which are clear and precise for the price point. At $300, it’s hard to find a better audio system than two Echo speakers and the Echo Sub. And the Echo’s smart features sweeten the deal.

Amazon provided two $99 Echo speakers, and they do the job. The Echo Sub can also be paired with two $149 Echo Plus speaker, which feature more significant drivers; I suspect using two of these speakers would result in even better sound and when purchased as part of a bundle, they’re only a few dollars more.

The Echo Sub works well in most situations. Compared to other subwoofers, it’s on the smaller side of the scale. It provides much-needed bass, but the woofer cannot shake walls. It does not pound, per se. It’s a great match for hard rock or pounding pop; it’s not for trunk-rattling rap. Think Arctics Monkeys instead of Post Malone.

The Alexa app allows users to adjust the amount of bass, mid and treble the subwoofer produces. I found the adjustments to be minor and unable to change the sound profile of the woofer drastically. Overall, the Echo Sub is an elegant, little sub that works well in conjunction with a pair of Echo speakers.

The Echo Sub can work with just one Echo speaker, too. Own just Echo smart speaker? Add an Echo Sub for an astounding upgrade in sound quality.

Amazon is not the only company pairing smart speakers for a new age of stereo sound. Sonos has long allowed owners to wirelessly connect speakers to create stereo and surround sound setups. Two Google Home Max can be paired to create a lovely stereo set. The same goes for Apple HomePods: Two $350 HomePods can be wirelessly tied together for a stereo kit. Each of the setups mentioned above provides great audio quality, but they’re more expensive than Amazon’s solution. Only Sonos sells a dedicated subwoofer, though.

Amazon, with the addition of the Echo Sub, now offers a great audio experience for much less than that of its closest competitors. The $129 Echo Sub is compact and capable and the best way to instantly upgrade an Echo smart speaker setup. If possible, add a second an Echo speaker to create a virtual set of stereo speakers.

The Echo Sub is an easy recommendation for homes where an Echo speaker is dedicated to music. If forced to pick between adding a second Echo or adding an Echo Sub, go for the subwoofer first.