Fire at Jeff

I’ll bet you all thought I was going to use today’s post to talk about Amazon’s amazing, astounding, [insert your own superlative starting with “a”] Fire TV.

Sorry.

I am going to talk about Fire TV, but–not to give away the surprise ending of the post–I don’t see anything there that warrants those “a” words.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow the tech news,* Fire TV is Amazon’s entry into the “set-top box” space. Pause for question: why do we still call them “set-top”? I don’t have a single box small enough to fit on top of my TV. Even the Raspberry Pi is too big–and my TVs are far from the latest, skinniest models. End of digression.

* Frankly, I hope that’s most of you. Better yet, all of you. There are plenty of more worthy objects for your obsession. Off the top of my head, how about baseball, cats, and food?

Fire TV is mainly intended as a media streamer, competing against Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, and their ilk. Naturally, the focus is on Amazon’s own video offerings, though other sources are supported. Since other streamers also allow you to play your Amazon videos, the Medium A* needs to give you a reason to pick up their box. They’ve got three: UI, instant streaming, and games. Let’s take a quick look at those in reverse order.

* The Big A is, of course, Apple. How much of Amazon’s aggressive moves into spaces Apple controls is simply a desire to swap nicknames?

  • Games – Yep, it’s got ’em. In theory, since the Fire TV is running Android under the glitzy UI, it should be easy for developers to port their existing games over. In practice, Amazon heavily customizes Android on its tablets; there’s every reason to assume that they’ve done the same here. That could plant some significant landmines under developers’ feet. On the other hand, Amazon has a slick-looking game controller available for a mere 40% of the cost of the box. If they sell enough controllers, the size of the audience demanding games optimized for the controller would be a powerful incentive for developers to dance in that minefield.
  • Instant Streaming – This may prove to be the big winner for Amazon. The Fire TV caches heavily. That should cut down on streaming failures and “Buffering…” delays. More immediately visible to users, however, is the device’s predictive caching. It predicts which videos you are likely to want to watch next and starts downloading them before you even make the selection. The result is that when you do hit “Play”, the video starts instantly. As long as they don’t pre-cache so heavily that they blow through users’ bandwidth downloading video they never watch or interfere with their other network activities, instant streaming seems likely to grab a lot of eyes.
  • UI – Amazon is proud of the interface they developed for their Fire line of tablets. It’s graphic-heavy, puts their own library of titles front and center, and pisses the hell out of Google. What’s not to like? They’ve brought the same visual interface over to the Fire TV (suitably modified to allow for the fact that few TVs are touch-ready) and added voice searching. Speak into the microphone built into the remote. Your voice is uploaded to Amazon, stored, voice-recognized, and (in theory at least) appropriate search results are displayed*. The problem is that the market isn’t as excited about the interface as Amazon is. Despite Amazon’s mighty marketing muscle behind the Kindle Fire, they haven’t grabbed a major share of the tablet market. Even with a significantly lower price than the iPad, people are not flocking to Amazon’s offering. Even if one ignores Apple, Amazon isn’t dominating the rest of the market: Samsung and Google are at least holding their own.* I’m sure the NSA is salivating at the thought of a microphone in every bedroom and living room in the country. I’m sure they’re equally happy about the microphones in Xboxes and PS4s, but the key difference here is that Amazon will store recordings without anonymizing them. That’s so they can personalize the voice-recognition and improve its accuracy over time. Amazon’s customer data is already a huge target for criminals (and probably the NSA too, though that hasn’t been proven). Adding more data only makes it more desirable and harder to secure.

Bottom line: It doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your phone to your TV as Apple TV does. It doesn’t currently have nearly the same range of video sources that Roku does. It’s three times the price of Chromecast. But it may have found a sweet spot in the middle of that cluster. If you’re in the market for a media streamer, the Fire TV is certainly worth considering. Just don’t go applying all of those superlatives. It’s not at that level, and may never be.

Dropcam

I’ve written several times about phone technology and related matters. Today I’d like to go a little further afield and talk about streaming cameras; in particular, the hardware and service offered by Dropcam.

Dropcam first came to my attention through an article in Xconomy, which focused on Dropcom’s hiring philosophy and corporate culture. In brief, co-founder and CEO Greg Duffy says that Dropcom tries to hire employees who are demographically similar to their target customers: married, preferably with children; homeowners, preferably outside of Silicon Valley; and “not assholes”, which they define as having “good ethical fiber”* and being good team players. The corporate culture is designed to discourage long workdays and encourage family participation in corporate events. The company’s explicit policy is that they do not plan to sell the company, but if they do, it will be for enough money to make all employees wealthy, not just the founders.

* I can’t find an actual definition of what Duffy and Dropcom believe constitutes “good ethical fiber”; in the absence of evidence, I’ll refrain from speculating.

From an employee-retention perspective, it seems to work well. In four years of operation, Dropcam has never had an employee leave. From a product point of view? Bear with me; we’ll get there.

Their business plan centers around selling hardware with embedded software, not giving something away “free” and making money by selling user information. The hardware in question is a streaming video camera, designed to be simple to use. They achieve simplicity by moving as much of the “smarts” as possible outside of user’s control. Setting up the camera involves creating an account with Dropcam’s cloud service and then adding the camera to your wifi network. After that, the camera immediately begins streaming video to the cloud, and all control of the camera is done through Dropcam.

You read that correctly: unless you explicitly turn it off or unplug it, the camera stream video to Dropcam’s servers 24 hours a day. And if you want to turn it off, change the focus, or anything else, your only control is via Dropcam’s apps (web, iPhone, iPad, and Android).

Of course, Dropcam assures us that your footage is safe. They use “bank-level security” and the video is “encrypted on your Dropcam and transmitted to your devices using SSL security”. Note how carefully that’s phrased: the video is encrypted in transit from your camera to Dropcam and from Dropcam to your computer or phone, but no such assurances are made about the video on Dropcam’s servers. That’s because Dropcam needs to be able to decrypt the video in order to provide their services: send alerts to your phone when motion is detected and select sections of video to download for permanent storage. If they ever go down (or out of business), your camera is useless. It’s also useless if your internet connection goes down, suggesting that if the technology ever really catches on, we’ll start seeing half-way savvy criminals cutting cables before breaking in. (The fully savvy ones won’t bother, they’ll just wear masks and nondescript clothing as routinely as they currently wear gloves.)

So there’s a certain level of trust involved in the use of a Dropcam: you have to trust that Dropcam will respect your privacy and protect your data, because you have no control over it. Or maybe you don’t care; an earlier article in Xconomy references the tale of the young son of Dropcam’s VP of Marketing, who gets upset if the camera is off because Mommy sees him and talks to him through it when she’s away. This is (at least in the opinion of the article’s author, Wade Roush) a GoodThing, as it represents a change in people’s expectations of privacy that may lead people to “stop doing or saying things that would be embarrassing or incriminating.”

Pause to clarify: Nowhere in the articles or on Dropcam’s website is there any indication that Dropcam or its employees agree with Roush’s rather dystopian opinion. It would certainly be in their corporate best interest for more people to subject themselves to constant monitoring, but I appreciate the fact that they don’t come right out and say so…

Moving on.

So on the one hand, we have a device that’s very easy to set up and requires no maintenance (even firmware updates are pushed from Dropcam). On the other hand, it uses a large chunk of bandwidth in an era when ISPs are invoking caps, removes control from the hands of the user (as best I can tell, there isn’t even a provision for fixing a bad update), and has significant privacy implications. Would I buy one? I doubt it. Would I advise others not to buy one? No. There is a definite place for the technology. I just don’t think it’s as large a place as Dropcam does.

As an example of good use of the technology, consider the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA Cat Adoptions. They have several Dropcams set up and configured for public access. It allows them to show off their facilities and let people look in on pets without PHS/SPCA needing to pay for a high-bandwidth, high-cost network connection, since all of the network traffic comes from Dropcam’s servers. (As of this writing, there is a cat-cam visible at http://www.peninsulahumanesociety.org/adopt/).

There’s a lot of value in the pieces of the culture as expressed in the Xconomy article, but when you add the pieces together, I start to feel that the company is taking a very borgian approach both to its employees and to its customers: “We know what’s best for you because we are you.” Taken to the extreme, the result could be a stifling of dissent, even if the company begins to deviate from the “ethical” path. Even without going to that extreme, though, Dropcam risks getting caught in a cultural dead end. Different viewpoints and different experiences are, IMNSHO, a major (if not the major) source of insight and innovation. In the long term, building a team of people who share the same background and goals is likely to lead to corporate stagnation.

Possible case in point: Allowing customers to set up schedules for when the camera turns on and off is a comparatively simple extension of the core ability to turn the camera on and off, and the second-most requested feature on their support site. Should it have taken four years to introduce scheduling? In my opinion, no. From the outside of the company, there’s no way to tell if it took so long because they’re understaffed, or because everyone considered it unimportant. Dropcam needs to ask themselves whether this is an aberration or a pattern of behaviour. (Hint: of 112 feature requests, 14 are currently marked as “Done”.)