Info & Phones News
Amazon, Apple, and Google have joined forces on a new working group within the ZigBee Alliance to create a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products. The new group, called Project Connected Home over IP, will take an open-source approach for the development and implementation of the new protocol, including a specific set of IP-based networking technologies for device certification. By basing the new standard on IP (internet protocol) technology, the need for proprietary smart home "hubs" should be reduced or eliminated, and proven security technologies can be used. The first version of the standard will be designed to work over three different radio types: Wi-Fi (up to and including Wi-Fi 6), Bluetooth LE 4.1-5.0, and 802.15.4 (using Google's Thread at 2.4 GHz). The first compatible devices may implement the new protocol over any one (or more than one) of the three radio types, in addition to existing smart home protocols. Rather than starting from scratch, the group intends to accelerate development by leveraging existing, market-tested technology contributed by the founding companies. Google will contribute its Weave and Thread technologies, both of which are used in its Nest products. Apple will contribute HomeKit, Amazon will contribute its Alexa Smart Home technology, and the Zigbee Alliance will contribute its Dotdot data models. Other participating companies include Samsung SmartThings, IKEA, Legrand, NXP Semiconductors, Somfy, Resideo, Schneider Electric, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), Silicon Labs, and Wulian. The Working Group has a goal to release a draft specification and a preliminary reference open source implementation in late 2020.
Amazon has a number of updates to Alexa in store for phones and in-home connected devices. First, the mobile application for iPhones and Android devices has been given an entirely new look. The revised visual UI is easier to navigate. For example, under the devices tab each device is now listed separately rather than grouped by room. This lets people interact with multiple devices in multiple rooms from one screen rather than several. The fresh app is rolling out to the Google Play Store and iTunes App Store globally this week. Along with the redesign, Amazon has announced a new feature for developers that expands Alexa's skills. Skill connections will let two Alexa skills interact with one another, essentially letting one skill control a second skill. To start, the skill will be limited to printing, ride hailing, and restaurant booking. The idea is to ease the process of completing multi-step requests. With skills able to trigger other skills, it cuts the separate interactions required from two to one. For example, a skill that sells theater tickets could complete that purchase via Amazon Pay and then offer the buyer an Uber or Lyft to the theater without forcing the user to initiate a separate request. Amazon is offering skill connections as a developer preview right now. Amazon plans to add more types of skill interactions over time.
Amazon has updated its Alexa mobile app for iOS devices with the ability to support voice requests. The Android Alexa mobile app has had this feature since January. Now, iPhone users can issue voice commands to Alexa from their phone in order to access playlists or tap into Alexa’s various skills. The app does not support wake word functionality, which means people will need to open the app in order to make voice-based requests. The updated Alexa app with voice control is available from the iTunes App Store. Alexa is free to download.
Amazon has updated Alexa with several new powers that make it a more usable and fully-rounded voice assistant. First, Alexa gains a "Follow-Up Mode" that makes interacting with the assistant more natural. Once enabled, Alexa will listen for 5 seconds after completing an exchange for follow-up requests. The idea is to negate the need to repeatedly use the "Alexa" or "Echo" wake phrases. People will be able to wake an Echo device once, complete an interaction, and then immediately follow it up with a second request/interaction without using the wake phrase again. According to CNET, the blue ring on Echo devices will remain illuminated during this 5-second listening period. If no request is made, the Echo device will go back to sleep. Separately, TechCrunch reports that Amazon has brought Alexa voice calling to iPads, Android tablets, and Amazon-branded fire tablets. Alexa on Echo devices has been able to place voice calls for several months. Tablet owners can now initiate voice/video calls and send messages with Alexa on the slate of their choice. Amazon Fire tablets further gain the ability to act as intercoms, called Drop-In Mode, for talking to other Fire devices on the same WiFi network. Both Follow-Up Mode and voice calling on tablets need to be activated within the latest version of the Alexa app on mobile devices.
Facebook's messaging application for children, announced late last year, is now available from the Amazon App Store. The application can be installed and used on Amazon's Fire tablets. Messenger Kids is a mobile app that gives kids under the age of 13 the power to communicate via text and video with approved family members and friends. The app works on smartphones and tablets, but is controlled through the parent's Facebook account. Messenger Kids was first made available to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The app has yet to reach Android devices, though it is expected to soon. The app is free to download and use from Amazon.
Blu Products said over the weekend that its phones are once again available from Amazon.com. Amazon ceased selling the phones after it discovered the phones may be collecting consumer data and sending the data to remote servers. Blu maintained that any data collected by its phones was "standard for OTA functionality" and "[did] not affect any user's privacy or security," according to a statement provided to Engadget. Blu and Amazon resolved the matter through conversations between them, though Amazon said it will pull the phones again if it feels its customers' privacy is being violated. While consumers can once again purchase Blu smartphones from Amazon.com, the company's phones have not returned to Amazon.com's Prime Exclusives. Prime Exclusive devices cost less as long as the owner agrees to view ads on the lock screen.
Amazon today said Prime customers can now download videos for offline playback. The feature, part of Amazon Prime Instant Video, is compatible with Fire tablets, the Fire Phone, Android phones and tablets, and iOS devices, such as the iPhone. Amazon is offering an unknown percentage of its video library for offline playback, including televisions shows, classic movies, and newer cinematic releases. Not all videos are available for download/offline playback; compatible videos will be marked as such. Prime subscribers can download the video file via WiFi and will have between 15 to 30 days to watch the video (varies by title) before the viewing period ends. Offline viewing is only available to residents of the U.S.
Amazon has reduced the headcount at its Labs126 hardware division, according to the Wall Street Journal. The hardware division is responsible for products such as the Fire Phone and Kindle line of tablets. The unit employs about 3,000 people and the number of staff reductions isn't clear, though the Journal's sources suggest dozens have been let go. The Fire Phone, released last year, was Amazon's first smartphone. It ran a forked version of Android called FireOS and provided direct access to Amazon's book, music, and video content. Based on the job cuts, it does not appear as though there will be a follow up to the smartphone. Amazon did not comment on the Journal's story.
Amazon has begun to distribute a significant system update to the Fire Phone. Fire OS 3.6.5 adds a wide range of new features to Amazon's smartphone, as well as the expected series of performance improvements and bug fixes. One of the new features is the ability to translate text and identify artwork using Firefly, Amazon's visual search tool. The camera gains a feature called Best Shot, which quickly takes three pictures in succession, allowing users to select the best of the bunch. Other new features include the ability to turn on/off SMS character counts, use more keyboard languages, block phone numbers, add custom ringtones, see more info on the lock screen, write and edit documents with WPS Office, connect to corporate VPNs, and sync calendars across Amazon devices. Amazon says the update also makes improvements to battery life. Fire OS 3.6.5 can be downloaded via WiFi or installed from a computer. The update is free.
Amazon recently expanded the availability of unlimited online photo storage to all Amazon Prime customers. Before today, this feature was only available to owners of the Fire Phone. With Prime Photos, Android and iOS device owners can automatically upload, store, and access their photos from their smartphone or tablet. Prime Photo users can also access their photos from the web, via Fire TV, or via select smart TVs and gaming consoles. Amazon Prime requires a yearly subscription fee of $99, but also includes reduced shipping charges and access to Prime Music and Prime Video on demand.
Amazon today announced a new version of its FireOS platform. FireOS 4 Sangria further integrates Amazon's devices with its cloud-based content offerings. The revised operating system has a redesigned user interface and adds individual Profiles, which allows family members to have their own email and social media accounts, as well as settings such as display brightness, bookmarks, and game levels. Fire OS includes ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction), which Amazon says can predict the movies or TV shows the owner may want to watch and streams them instantly. Another feature called Smart Suspend will use individual user profiles to determine when the device is most often dormant and can then proactively take steps to conserve battery life, such as turning off the wireless radios. FireOS 4 adds a function called Family Library, which makes it easier for families to share apps, games, books, and other Amazon content. Last, FireOS 4 brings Firefly to Amazon's tablets. FireOS 4 ships on Amazon's newest fourth-generation Kindle Fire tablets and will be available for Amazon's third-generation tablets through an over-the-air system update. Amazon said Fire OS 4 will be available on Fire Phone early next year. FireOS 4 Sangria is based on Android 4.4 KitKat.
Amazon and AT&T today announced the Fire Phone is now available for the price of $0.99 with a new two-year contract. The Fire Phone was sold for $200 on contract when it launched just two months ago. Alternately, consumers can pick it up for $0 down and $18.75 per month (for 24 months) with AT&T Next 18. The Fire Phone runs FireOS, a forked version of Android, and uses Amazon's services rather than Google's. It has several distinctive features, such as FireFly for searching/shopping; Dynamic Perspective, which provides a 3D-like user interface; and a free year of Amazon Prime.
Amazon today made available Fire OS 3.5.1 for the Fire Phone. The update (version 111009920) adds a range of new features to the Fire Phone. For example, the Lenticular Photo tool now allows owners to paste together 11 images into one rather than just three, and the email carousel now allows owners to delete emails directly from the home screen. The update adds the ability to pin favorite apps to the front of the home carousel; create folders of apps or content in the app grid; and, with a double-press of the home button, quick switch to other running apps. The system update also makes improvements to video sharing, which now permit high-resolution videos to be sent via MMS or email. Last, Fire OS 3.5.1 makes dozens of updates to system apps in order to improve battery life. Fire Phone owners can download and install the update over the air, or install it manually via USB. The update is free.
Amazon's Fire Phone has one of the more interesting user interfaces to reach consumers this year. Here's an in-depth look at how FireOS, Dynamic Perspective, and FireFly really work.
Skype today said it is preparing a version of its mobile communications application for Amazon's Fire Phone. The Fire Phone runs FireOS, a forked version of Android. The Skype app will launch alongside the phone when it goes on sale. Skype said it designed the app with the Fire Phone's user interface in mind, including a widget for the Fire carousel, and it will offer an experience that feels natural to Fire Phone owners. Skype said its 3D icon and notification badge make use of the Fire Phone's Dynamic Perspective technology, which provides a 3D-like experience through the use of four user-facing cameras. AT&T will begin selling the Fire Phone later this month.
Amazon is finally ready to unleash its first phone, the Fire. An exclusive to AT&T, this unique phone sports a spiffy interface totally new to the phone world, and a few fancy hardware and software features. Read on for our hands-on first impressions.
Amazon has made clear to the Federal Trade Commission that it will not settle with the government over claims it didn't adequately prevent customers from making in-app purchases. Consumers complained that children were able to easily make unwanted in-app purchases from Amazon's Appstore. Amazon has operated its own Appstore for Android and Fire OS apps since 2011. The FTC has threatened Amazon with litigation if it fails to sign a consent decree similar to the one signed by Apple earlier this year. Apple settled with the FTC for $32.5 million in order to avoid any courtroom drama. Amazon believes it responded quickly and adequately to the issue at hand and shouldn't be beholden to government action. The company said in a letter to the FTC that it will defend itself in court. The FTC argues that Amazon needs to require passwords for in-app purchases, make warnings more prominent, and make it easier for customers to receive refunds. Amazon has already provided some refunds. The FTC has yet to file formal charges.