Tag: amazon

Tech companies unite to fight for Dreamers

In September, President Trump announced that he would phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the US at a young age. This week, Reuters reported that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and other large tech companies plan to lobby Congress to pass legislation that will continue to protect these so-called Dreamers. The total number of companies involved is around two dozen, though that could change before the coalition launches.

After the president announced his decision, tech company executives expressed their disappointment in numerous ways, including on Twitter and via email. Hundreds of CEOs signed an open letter from pro-immigration group FWD.us (co-founded by Mark Zuckerberg) urging the president to continue the program.

It's likely that some action will happen on the DACA front as the holidays approach. In December, Congress will hopefully pass a spending bill (or face a US government shutdown). Reuters reports that Democrats may use this opportunity to pass legislation to protect Dreamers, trading their votes to avert a shutdown in exchange for promised protections.

Via: Business Insider

Source: Reuters


Intel and Amazon partner on voice recognition tech

Intel and Amazon are partnering to put the former's silicon and smarts into the latter's Alexa voice platform. The chipmaker has introduced the Intel Speech Enabling Developer Kit to provide a "complete audio front-end solution for far-field voice control," according to a press release. The idea is that Intel has done the hard work of designing the mic arrays and voice systems and that all developers will need to do is write applications for them. It offers algorithms for echo cancellation and beam forming, wake words, an 8-mic array and the company's dual digital signal processor.

The development kit is up for preorder as of today for $399. And while that might be a little too expensive for a hobbyist developer (a Raspberry Pi is $25) for now, it isn't exorbitantly priced a la some game console development kits. If you wait until after the pre-order window, the cost jumps $100.

Of course, if you don't want to get your hands dirty with hardware -- or spend any money -- you can always make skills for Alexa for free with Amazon's developer portal. That's helped Amazon's voice platform grow by leaps and bounds, so it'll be interesting to see what effect Intel's new kit will have.

Source: Intel (1), (2)


Amazon’s largest wind farm yet is up and running in Texas

Greenpeace slammed Amazon earlier this week for its environmental practices -- namely, the fact that it doesn't disclose much about its energy use or materials. But today, the company announced that its largest wind farm yet is up and running. The Amazon Wind Farm Texas, located in Scurry County, Texas, includes over 100 turbines and will generate enough clean energy to power more than 330,000 homes.

This isn't Amazon's first foray into clean energy. The Amazon Wind Farm Texas is among 18 others across the US, and the online retailer has another 35 in planning stages. Not only are they offsetting their carbon footprint, at least somewhat, but they're providing more jobs and contributing to local economies. Kara Hurst, Amazon's Worldwide Director of Sustainability, cites a company-wide goal of eventually powering their infrastructure using solely renewable energy.

It's not clear whether this specific press release is a response to Greenpeace's actions, but Amazon is clearly interested in garnering as much good will as possible, and they're going about it in a great way. People can feel however they want about the company, but it's hard to argue with a project like this. The wind farms also make clear that the retail giant is interested in many more endeavors than solely selling you more stuff than you need and delivering it within two days.

Source: BusinessWire


Motorola’s newest mod puts an Alexa speaker on your phone

Ever wanted to have an Amazon Echo speaker with you wherever you are, rather than relying on your phone's built-in voice assistant? Motorola is betting you do. As promised, it's releasing an Alexa-powered Moto Mod (the Moto Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa, to be exact) that slaps an Echo-like device on the back of compatible phones like the Moto Z2 Force or Z Play. The key, as you might guess, is that it delivers that across-the-room voice control in a way your phone can't by itself.

The large dedicated speaker is clearly one advantage, but there are also four mics to make sure it picks up your voice in relatively noisy environments. And with a 15-hour built-in battery, you won't kill your phone if you're constantly asking questions. The mod also has a clever dock design that's intended for use on your nightstand.

If there's an obstacle, it's the cost. The Alexa speaker will be available for $150 US (£99 in the UK) when it ships in November to those countries where Alexa has official support. At that price, you'll have to really like the idea of a truly portable Echo speaker that fits in your pocket; this might be excessive if you just want another Echo for the office.

Source: Motorola Blog


Amazon and eBay accused of turning blind eye to VAT fraud

It's not uncommon to see a headline vilifying a well-known tech company for their incredibly low tax contributions despite turnovers in the billions. The EU is famously taking Apple to task, but more often than not, these clockwork bouts of outrage are frustrating to endure. If these "loopholes" are built into the system, it would seem energy could be better spent lobbying for tax reform instead of telling the same story ad infinitum. But this isn't one of those stories. In a new report, the UK government's Public Accounts Committee has made some pretty strong allegations against Amazon, eBay and other unnamed online marketplaces, accusing them of facilitating VAT fraud.

A company based outside of the EU can sell a product to a UK customer without charging 20 percent VAT; but, if that product happens to be on UK land when the sale takes place, they are obligated to charge VAT. Sites like Amazon and eBay have blurred the lines somewhat, however. Third-party sellers based outside of the EU sell to UK customers through those platforms, but the products themselves are typically stashed in warehouses (aka fulfilment centres), which is why they arrive with you the next morning.

The committee is accusing Amazon, eBay and others of being complicit in fraud by turning a blind eye to third-party sellers that aren't charging VAT, even though the products they're selling are sitting on the shelves of UK warehouses when the transactions take place. This scenario obviously gives the sellers an illegal, competitive advantage over businesses based in the UK and others that play by the rules. On top of that, the government is missing out on all that sweet tax revenue, which HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) estimated was between £1 and £1.5 billion in 2015-16 -- "depriving public services of funds at a time of austerity," as the committee puts it.

Amazon and eBay are also accused of taking a lax approach to self-policing these third-party sellers despite claiming it's within their interests to maintain their reputations. The committee asserts their checking procedures aren't robust or proactive enough -- "it is bewildering to us that these big companies have taken such little action to date." It's also said online marketplaces don't cooperate properly with HMRC and share enough data to make identifying non-compliant traders easier. In further damaging claims: "The Committee conducted some mystery shopping which showed how easy it was to buy something, have it delivered the next day from a UK base and not pay VAT. We were even offered a partial refund when we repeatedly requested a VAT invoice."

That's not to say the Public Accounts Committee thinks HMRC is ill-equipped to deal with the problem. In fact, the report saddles almost as much blame on HMRC for failing to tackle VAT fraud. According to the committee, HMRC underestimates the impact of online VAT fraud, and doesn't do nearly enough to tackle it in the face of repeated warnings from the committee itself and several campaign groups. It's alleged that "HMRC waited until the introduction of new measures under the Finance Act 2016 before it attempted to hold online marketplaces responsible." And yet, HMRC has done little since, with no prosecutions thus far or even a namecheck of a non-compliant trader. In statements sent to The Guardian, Amazon, eBay and HMRC basically said they were all doing their best, etc.

In no uncertain terms, the Public Accounts Committee has recommended HMRC basically step up and do its job, part of which should involve setting up proper cooperating agreements with marketplaces like Amazon and eBay, potentially via new legislation if necessary, as well as chasing unpaid VAT from bygone sales. Furthermore, the committee recommends HMRC gets its ducks in a row posthaste. "With Brexit and the uncertainty over trading and customs this issue is only going to get more complicated."

Via: The Guardian

Source: Public Accounts Committee


Amazon’s Alexa can create lists for virtually anything

Amazon's Alexa may boast tens of thousands of skills, but there's probably a handful you keep coming back to. If you're the adventurous type, you might use it to find baby-making tunes, brush up on Eurovision trivia, or play a tickling game. Everyone else, it seems, sticks to its most popular trick: creating lists. And, now Amazon is giving you the power to tally absolutely anything.

The company is expanding Alexa's shopping and to-do list functions to include custom lists. So, you'll be able to compose lists for different stores, like Walmart and (if Amazon has its way) Whole Foods. Plus, you could make specific lists for your travels, family members, and even holidays. Once you're done, your list will be saved to the Alexa mobile app -- plus, you can now use Alexa skills to sync all your new lists with select third-party apps too (including Any.do, AnyList and Cozi).

The feature is currently rolling out and will be available to all Echo devices over the next few days.

Via: TechCrunch


Amazon UK now has over 100 instant-order Dash buttons

In order to be the biggest, sometimes you need to be the fastest. It's a philosophy that Amazon has strictly adhered to, thanks to 1-Click ordering and its one-click Dash buttons. It's been just over a year since Amazon introduced its instant order buttons, and in that time, the company has continued to add big-name brands like Heineken and Tassimo. Today, Amazon UK has announced that as part of another product refresh, it's made another 39 items available via Dash buttons, taking the total to over 100.

As expected, the large majority of new additions are household products. Brands like Bold, Calgon and Cillit Bang now have their own one-click buttons, as do pet food companies like Purina, Wagg, Bakers and Felix. The English Tea Shop, Evian and Vitacoco have also been added for customers who value hydration.

Amazon UK's Dash catalog is still some way off the 250 products offered across the pond, but it's no longer just a list of carefully-selected partners. Products like Batteries, sanitary products and alcohol can now be instantly-ordered the minute they've run out, reducing the need to trudge to the local supermarket.

The full list: Always Discreet, Ambi Pur, Applaws, Bakers, Beta, Bold, Calgon, Cillit Bang, Clairol Root Touch-Up, Dentalife, Encore, English Tea Shop, Evian, Febreze, Felix, Flash, Gaviscon, Harringtons, Head & Shoulders, Lily's Kitchen, Napisan, Nescafé, Nescafé Azera, Pampers Baby Wipes, PetSafe, Purina Go-Cat, Purina Gourmet, Purina Pro Plan, Simple Solution, SMA, Tampax, Vet's Best, VIPoo, Vitacoco, Wagg, Waterwipes, Windolene and World's Best Cat Litter.

Source: Amazon UK


Sonos One review: The best-sounding smart speaker you can buy

When Sonos released the Play:5 speaker in late 2015, the Amazon Echo was still an unproven tech curiosity. But since then, Alexa and the Echo have grown rapidly in both popularity and functionality, inspiring competition from the likes of Google and Apple. Talking to a speaker is totally normal now -- but Sonos users haven't been able to that. They've instead had to choose between the convenience of products like the Echo and Google Home and the superior audio quality that Sonos speakers offer.

Sonos has known for some time that this is a problem. In early 2016, then-CEO John MacFarlane cited the Echo as primary competition and promised that voice recognition would be a key technology for the company moving forward. Now, we're finally seeing the fruits of that effort. The Sonos One takes everything that worked in the company's entry-level Play:1 speaker and adds in support for Amazon's Alexa, which means you can finally talk to a Sonos speaker and have it play music for you. But with Google, Amazon and Apple all working on music-focused speakers of their own, Sonos could get buried if the One doesn't do everything right.

Hardware

If you've used the $199 Play:1 speaker, you'll feel right at home with the Sonos One. At a glance, it features the same rounded rectangular shape as the Play:1, but adds a few new design flourishes to match Sonos' current design language. The top of the One is completely flat now, with no physical buttons like the ones on the Play:1. Instead, the One's top surface doubles as a touch panel, with a play/pause button dead center. On either side are spots to tap to raise and lower volume, and sliding your finger left to right lets you skip to the next track. This setup is identical to what Sonos first introduced on the Play:5 and carried over into the recently-released PlayBase; I'm glad to see it here as well.

There are two LED lights on top of the speaker. One is a status light to show you when the device is working or having trouble connecting to the internet; the second is underneath a little microphone icon. As you'd expect, this shows you whether the six-microphone array in the One is active. Tap the mic icon to keep the speaker from listening in, and the light goes out.

Other than updates to the top or the speaker, the only external difference between the One and Play:1 is that the grille is now color-matched to the rest of the speaker, which comes in black or white. The Play:1's grille is gray, regardless of what color the rest of the exterior is.

The Sonos One uses the same audio components and speakers as those found in the Play:1, but the internal layout had to be completely redesigned in order to fit the microphones. But Sonos was able to make the necessary changes without affecting the size or weight of the One -- these specs remain unchanged from the Play:1.

Setup

Once you plug in the Sonos One, all of the setup is done on your smartphone. If you've never set up Sonos products before, you'll need to create a Sonos account; from there you just need to connect the speaker to your WiFi network. You'll then want to sign in to the music services that you use -- Sonos supports essentially every available option, including Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, Pandora, Tidal, Amazon Music and many more.

The next part of the setup process is entirely new: enabling Alexa. You'll need to have the Alexa app installed on your smartphone -- the Sonos app will direct you there, at which point your new speaker will show up as ready to be configured. It's a pretty simple process, but you'll then have to enable your music services in Amazon's app as well.

That's where I encountered a hiccup with. The speaker only works with music services supported by Amazon and Alexa, which currently only includes Amazon Music (naturally), Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Even though Spotify works with other Alexa-enabled devices, it doesn't yet work on the One, though Sonos says it'll be ready soon. Other music services that aren't supported by Alexa will work with the One through the app, and you'll still be able to use voice commands to pause, resume and skip tracks. But you won't be able to ask Alexa to play specific albums or playlists from your Play Music or Tidal account, at least for now.

One last word on setting up voice services. Over the years, Sonos has committed to supporting every audio service that it could, and it wants to do the same with voice control systems as well. As such, the Google Assistant will come to the Sonos One sometime early next year. So, if you prefer Google's voice assistant, know that it should be available before too long. In particular, those using Google Play Music or YouTube Music will want to give this a shot.

Audio quality

Since the Sonos One has the same audio hardware as the Play:1, sound quality was essentially indistinguishable between the two, and that's a good thing. The Sonos One impressed me with clear, dynamic and loud sound that far outstrips Google Home or the original Echo (the second-generation model, announced three weeks ago, is supposed to have better audio). Of course, you're paying a bit more for the One,, but $199 is a totally reasonable price for the sound quality you get here. The One lacks the bass performance, stereo separation and improved clarity you'll get from a larger, more expensive speaker like Sonos' own Play:5 or the forthcoming Google Home Max, but the price-performance ratio here is excellent.

As with the rest of the Sonos lineup, you can tune these speakers using a feature called "TruePlay." It uses the mic on your iPhone to analyze your room and optimizes the sound of the speaker based on where it has been placed. I've been impressed with TruePlay since it was unveiled two years ago, but it's worth noting that Google and Apple are both releasing speakers that can tune themselves any time you move them. Since no Sonos speaker (until the One) has had working mics, this hasn't been possible, and the One still uses the same tuning process as the rest of the Sonos lineup.

The downsides to the One mostly come down to bass, as I mentioned earlier. There's only so much you can get out of such a compact speaker. The sound still sounds balanced -- I didn't feel like the music was lacking when listening to the One on its own -- but the low end is not as strong as what you'll get from larger (and more expensive) speakers.

The One is also a mono speaker, but you can pair two of them together to get stereo sound as well as increased volume. I've tried this before with a pair of Play:1 speakers and it makes a significant difference in the music quality and listening experience. One speaker is just fine for background music, but people serious about audio quality will appreciate having a stereo pair.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to pair a Sonos One and Play:1 together in stereo, despite the fact that they're essentially the same speaker. Sonos said that most customers pair speakers together when they buy them in a pair, but there are also probably people who've bought one Play:1 to try Sonos out who'd be interested in adding a One for voice control and stereo playback. The company did at least say that this feature could be added in the future via a software update.

Otherwise, the One works with the rest of the Sonos lineup just as well as you'd expect. If you have other Sonos speakers and want to group the One with them for multi-room playback, you can do that right in the Sonos app.

Alexa integration

But if you're buying the Sonos One, you don't want to use the music player app -- you want to control it with your voice. Assuming you're using a service that works with Alexa, this works basically the same as an Echo. This means that you can ask your One to start play any song, album, artist, playlist or anything else in your music library. The Alexa app also lets you pick different services for your "music library" and "stations," if you're so inclined. That lets you access playlists and albums from one service but have another play genre-based stations (what Pandora has focused on for so many years).

Once you've started playing some tunes, you can ask Alexa to raise and lower the volume, skip tracks or pause your music entirely. You can also send music to other Sonos speakers in your setup using Alexa. You can tell Alexa to play music on other speakers the names that you've assigned them in the Sonos app (living room, office, etc.). Overall, music control with voice works just fine, whether using a music session you kicked off with your voice or something you started in the Sonos app. If you've used Alexa on one of Amazon's own devices before, you'll mostly be right at home with the Sonos One voice commands.

Unfortunately, there were a few times I ran into some strange and frustrating bugs -- the speaker wasn't recognizing that it was playing music, so "pause" or "next track" requests didn't work. Amazon Music also occasionally got confused and told me it was playing on another device so it couldn't play on the speaker I asked for. Sonos helped me troubleshoot the problem -- just asking Alexa to "discover devices" cleared things up. It seemed to re-sync the Sonos skill with the speaker, essentially, and then I was happily playing tunes again.

I also occasionally had trouble getting the One to hear my cries of "Alexa" when I wanted its attention. That was only when I had music playing pretty loudly, and I'm pretty sure that was the cause of my problem. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's probably worth noting that you might have a hard time getting Alexa's attention if you're cranking some tunes.

Alexa integration means the One can also do almost anything that Echo devices can do. You can install skills for managing smarthome devices, sync your calendar and reminders to Alexa, get weather forecasts and news updates, ask random trivia questions and add the many third-party skills that Amazon's service supports.

There are a couple of notable Alexa services that aren't enabled when using the Sonos One: voice calls and messaging. Those features are saved for Amazon's own hardware at the moment. Sonos said that those features could be added in the future, but the company wanted to focus the experience more on music than the full suite of Alexa features -- a reasonable claim, but the One can do nearly everything else that Alexa can do, so it feels more like this is something Amazon wanted to save for itself. This one feature aside, though, the Sonos One is a strong option for getting an excellent music speaker that also taps into nearly everything that Alexa can do.

The competition

Sonos products have historically been pretty unique, but as we've mentioned, the last year has seen some major players get into the music speaker market. With Alexa on board, the new Echo and Echo Plus are the Sonos One's most direct competitors. We haven't fully reviewed either, but I'd be surprised if either offered audio quality that's on part with the One. But at only $99, the standard Echo will offer an improved speaker compared to its predecessor. Plenty of people were already listening to music on the Echo, and now new buyers will end up with an even better speaker. For lots of people, the Echo speaker will be good enough.

The Echo Plus is slightly bigger than the standard Echo, and as such has a bigger tweeter. That said, improved audio over the standard Echo isn't a selling point Amazon has mentioned, so it's safe to assume it'll provide a similar listening experience. We can't say for sure yet, but we'll be reviewing both of them soon.

Apple and Google are both launching their own music-focused, voice-controlled speakers this winter: the HomePod and Home Max, respectively. Based on the various demos we've had, both seem like they'll outperform the Sonos One from an audio standpoint. But, that's to be expected -- the Home Max costs twice as much ($399), and the HomePod comes in just under that at $350. And in both cases, you won't have access to Alexa; you'll have to be content with the Google Assistant or Siri as your digital assistant.

If you're thinking of spending that much money on a speaker but would prefer the Sonos ecosystem, you might as well consider the $499 Sonos Play:5. No, it doesn't have voice control built in, but you can pair it with an Echo Dot and get the same level of voice control that the Sonos One offers, with audio quality that far surpasses any other connected speaker you could buy.

None of these options match the Sonos One's $199 price point; the speaker really does sit alone in this category. It's better than an Echo or Google Home, but probably not as good as what Google and Apple have coming up. But if you have even a passing interest in playing music around your house, the Sonos One hits a sweet spot, offering great music quality without breaking the bank.

Wrap-up

The Play:1 has been Sonos' best-selling speaker, and with good reason. It offers significantly better music quality than your average Bluetooth or smart speaker without breaking the bank. It's also a great first step into a multi-speaker setup for your home. The Sonos One does all of that and adds voice controls without raising the price. Those voice controls may have a few bugs to work out, but aside from one frustrating afternoon it worked well for me.

Anyone who is considering an Echo or Google Home would do well to consider the Sonos One, as well. In a world where white earbuds, laptop speakers and Bluetooth devices have come to dominate the music-listening experience, a lot of people have forgotten how good a dedicated music speaker can sound.

The Sonos One is a great way for most people to significantly upgrade your audio setup while also getting the convenience of voice controls. I wish that both Spotify voice commands and the Google Assistant were supported at launch, but this speaker will keep getting more features through upcoming software updates. Given that, I have no problem recommending it now. It'll work right out of the box as an Alexa-enabled device, it'll support more music services over time and it's a great way to dip your feet into the Sonos ecosystem. Just don't be surprised if you end up wanting to buy a few more.


Greenpeace blasts Amazon over poor environmental practices

Greenpeace has made a tradition out of raking companies over the coals when their environmental practices fall short of its standards, and that's truer than ever in the activist group's latest electronics report card. The organization didn't list any major company whose environmental stances (including renewable energy, sustainable products and toxin-free materials) were good enough to merit an "A" grade, and four companies earned an unflattering "F" -- including internet giant Amazon. According to Greenpeace, Jeff Bezos' brainchild falls well short on most marks.

Most notably, Greenpeace accuses Amazon of being opaque when it comes to discussing its environmental practices. The company publishes virtually no data on its energy use, its materials or whether or not it limits the use of hazardous chemicals. It tends to offer only the info required by law. Outside of its adoption of solar powered data centers and support for eco-friendly government policies, it hasn't made public commitments to lessen the environmental impact of its products. This isn't to say that Amazon hasn't taken steps to help the planet -- it's just impossible to know without more transparency. We've asked Amazon for comment.

As it stands, Amazon isn't alone. Some Chinese phone makers are also less-than-kind to the Earth, including stablemates Oppo and Vivo as well as Xiaomi. Not surprisingly, it's again chalked up to a lack of transparency and public commitments. If they're doing anything to improve the environment, they're not talking about it.

Only two companies fare well in the guide. Apple gets a "B-" through its strong transparency and very open commitments to eco-friendly technology, and it's mainly hurt by its reliance on hard-to-fix devices as well as its opposition to Right to Repair laws. The top performer is Fairphone, whose emphasis on easily-repaired, sustainable tech got it a "B" marred only by some unclear commitments. Whatever you think of Greenpeace or its verdicts, the guide at least serves as a useful goalpost. If companies want to prove that they're taking care of Mother Nature, they have to demonstrate in everything they do.

Source: Greenpeace


Amazon Studios head resigns after sexual harassment allegations

A few days ago, Amazon suspended the VP leading its film and TV projects after Isa Dick Hackett told The Hollywood Reporter that Roy Price sexually harassed her. Now, CNN and others report that the exec has "resigned." Hackett is the producer on two Amazon adaptations of her father's (Philip K. Dick) work, and THR reported that Price "repeatedly and insistently propositioned her." However, this was not the first time that statement came to light, as The Information reported an Amazon investigation into the matter back in August.

Hackett went on the record with THR, saying she was inspired after women shared stories of harassment and assault by Harvey Weinstein. Actress Rose McGowan spoke out against both men, tweeting to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that when she told Price that Weinstein had raped her (he was suggested as a producer for her show), Price ignored her. Now Price is gone and Weinstein today left the board of his film company.

Source: CNN