Death By Special Offers

I truly don’t know what’s going on over at Amazon these days. In the past couple of weeks they announced a barrage of hardware and software that spanned everything from updated FireTV sticks that only have a $10 price difference between models (why?), to security camera products for both of Amazon’s security camera product lines, to a new Hub that can do Show stuff but Shows can’t do Hub stuff, to a $600 router, and stealing Panos Panay from Microsoft. Alexa, hasn’t had a meaningful new feature in a while, but now it’ll have a newer, more natural voice, and will use everyone’s favorite buzzword, AI in the form of a large language model that will slowly roll out to make sure it doesn’t hallucinate too much.

On the services side, Amazon is also increasing the additional monthly fees they can tack on to Amazon Prime, and devaluing Prime Video further. Previously, they caused confusion and diluted the Prime Video “brand” and app with the insertion of IMdB TV, which was renamed FreeVee. Selecting one of those titles showed ads, even though Prime Video titles did not (other than self-promo pre-roll ads that all VODs show). Now advertising comes for us all, unless Prime subscribers pay an additional $2.99 a month. Alexa Guard, a feature where Amazon listens for disturbances in your home while you are away (smoke detectors, the sound of breaking glass, etc.) has been retired so that it’s features could be added to Alexa Emergency Assist, which will be an additional $5.99 a month fee.

In many ways, Amazon is the anti-Apple. Instead of steady (if glacial) progress, there are these bursts of activity that don’t feel especially focused or cohesive. Like the aforementioned FireTV sticks, which compete with each other ($10 price difference!) in addition to competing with Roku. Also they get software features for a new Up Next row that won’t launch until some later point, and the more expensive of the two can turn your TV into an ambient smart display that only the “high end” Amazon-branded TV sets could do before.

A large part of my skepticism about the products is from my negative experiences using Amazon products in recent years. They used to be inexpensive, not particularly beautiful, while still being functional. Often performing features that Apple charged a premium for, like having 4K HDR video under $100, with a voice assistant, and universal search. They even do things Apple can’t do, like aggregate live TV programming guides from disparate apps into a single OS-level interface for navigating “what’s on”.

They have had Echo Show, and tablets with an Echo Show mode, for years while Apple just launched their Stand By mode only for iPhones in a horizontal position on a MagSafe dock as their first foray into ambient (if pretty limited) computing.

However, the Echo Show tablet I have will not stay connected to the Eero WiFi, and not a single FireOS update has fixed that. All the updates have done is push more junk into the thing when it is connected to the network. The writhing mass of growth-hacking bottom-feeders (the product managers) at Amazon just keep adding new categories to the Echo Show that need to be opted out of. Like every brainless marketing bro who just ads a new opt-out newsletter to hit the email inboxes of everyone who opted out of the last newsletter, and the one before that. Lazy, invasive ads that you can’t pay extra to remove.

There is a distinction, of course, between paid advertisements (where a third party has paid Amazon to promote something), first party advertisements (enticing someone to purchase or subscribe to something through Amazon), and feature announcements (Alexa can now do handstands, just ask Alexa to find out how). To most people those are unwanted ads, even in cases where a product manager argues they’re helping by surfacing products that might be relevant, or increasing awareness of functionality, or TV content. I certainly haven’t found that to be the case recently.

Three photos of the Echo Show tablet displaying various ads. The first is "Try the Alexa Super Mario Bros. theme." The second is NFL news, and the third is to create a character using Alexa with your child.

Last month I gave up on trying to reconnect it to the WiFi because what’s the point? Seeing the weather and time is no longer worth the frustration of this spam, nor is talking to Alexa in its current state. Here’s Dan Seifert, of The Verge, on Mastodon:

There’s nothing enticing about the prospect of buying any of those newly announced ambient displays precisely for that reason. It’ll just be paying for that same experience (although hopefully with a more reliable WiFi stack) and that’s not a “deal”.

I stopped using my FireTV Stick altogether. Only occasionally plugging it in to check on the live TV updates, which are genuinely interesting in the field of smart TVs. The day-to-day experience of using the device has gone from functional to just bad. It really came down to the changes Amazon made to their home screen, to once again, shove garbage there. While Apple TV’s TV app has the same issue with sacrificing user experience to growth hack Apple TV+ subs, the TV app can be wholly bypassed in a way the FireTV’s home screen can’t. A new quad core chip for the FireTV 4K Stick isn’t going to lure me back. Faster trash? No thanks!

The changes to Alexa are, once again, something I’m deeply skeptical of. I just want to set timers and ask for the weather. The simple things in life. The move to push “Did you know I can…” and “Would you like me to…?” responses after every query has made both myself - and my boyfriend - use Siri on our iPhones instead. Not because we deeply love and respect Siri, but just because we don’t want to have to yell “NOOOO” at Alexa after every request for a simple task.

I have never been particularly alarmed by how invasive the devices are, but the inconvenience — the abject shittiness of it — that’s the issue for me.

There’s a pretty invasive feature to map your smart home, which would be a useful, and novel thing if Apple did it. And not something that made me feel like I was just scanning my house to help Amazon.

Even during these actual announcements, Janko Rottgers published a piece about rumored projection-mapping hardware from a startup Amazon acquired that could leverage your mapped house for some neat projection stuff. However, it just made me think of College football ads projected on the walls, or suggestions to buy some piece of e-waste that’s a combination cable adapter and unregulated battery pack.

There’s never been any taste at Amazon, but there’s also never been this much thirstiness either. Treating all the customers like we’re Clockwork-Oranged to anything they put in front of us is really assuming a lot about what people will put up with.

Apple in the year 3000

And again, to contrast that with Apple, it’s not like Apple has radically improved their approach to smart home stuff over time. They built that whole life-size dollhouse set to show off connectivity in a home, and still no one really lives like that. There are no real control hubs, or first-party devices beyond expensive speakers with humidity sensors inside. Errors in the Home app are still frustratingly cryptic and managing the whole thing is nearly opaque.

However, does Apple really need to try harder or do better as Amazon self-sabotages? Will there ever be a turning point where the low-low prices aren’t of value? Will Panos Panay be able to shift any of this, or just make more attractive packaging for it? Will the people buying these devices on deep-discount and shoving them in the back of their closet, or pawning them off as burdensome gifts, change to something where there’s a desire for the new-ness over the deep-discount?

We might get a true smart hub from Apple in a couple years at this pace, and maybe there will be a generation of HomePods that isn’t just great sound, but a great Siri experience. God knows when we’ll ever get a great Siri experience, but that’s gotta happen some day, right? Maybe in another millennium?

That probably won’t ever replace Amazon because of the sky-high prices, but at least it can be a more viable alternative. And hopefully, there are people inside of Apple that recognize how encrusted with distraction these Amazon devices are and can lobby for less of that (services ads in the system, App Store search bullshit, etc.) in their own products.

The Smart Dark Ages

For now, I’m not investing in any additional smart garbage. I waited for Matter, and nothing about that lived up to the sales pitch. Investing in anything else feels like throwing away more money. I’ll let people tinker away with their Raspberry Pi’s and Home Bridge, and all that crap. I’ll limp along with this rag-tag fleet of smart plugs, bulbs, thermometers, and cameras until we’re on the other side of whatever this current era is. Where I trust both intention and function.

2023-10-03 11:30:00

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