Archive for November 23, 2022

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Amazon Alexa to Lose $10 Billion This Year

Ron Amadeo (Hacker News):

Amazon is going through the biggest layoffs in the company’s history right now, with a plan to eliminate some 10,000 jobs. One of the areas hit hardest is the Amazon Alexa voice assistant unit, which is apparently falling out of favor at the e-commerce giant. That’s according to a report from Business Insider, which details “the swift downfall of the voice assistant and Amazon’s larger hardware division.”

Alexa has been around for 10 years and has been a trailblazing voice assistant that was copied quite a bit by Google and Apple. Alexa never managed to create an ongoing revenue stream, though, so Alexa doesn’t really make any money. The Alexa division is part of the “Worldwide Digital” group along with Amazon Prime video, and Business Insider says that division lost $3 billion in just the first quarter of 2022, with “the vast majority” of the losses blamed on Alexa.


Just about every plan to monetize Alexa has failed, with one former employee calling Alexa “a colossal failure of imagination,” and “a wasted opportunity.”


The report says that while Alexa’s Echo line is among the “best-selling items on Amazon, most of the devices sold at cost.”

It’s not clear to me how it’s losing so much money if they’re selling the hardware at cost. Are they spending that much on the associated employees and server resources?

Via John Gruber:

What is (was?) Alexa about, strategically? I’ve often heard that the vague idea was that people would buy Alexa devices for obvious stuff (playing music, setting timers) but that eventually they’d starting using Alexa to buy stuff from Amazon — and thus wind up buying more stuff from Amazon than they would if they didn’t have an Alexa device in their house.

I find Alexa kind of annoying because it’s always trying to sell us stuff. The product recommendations are unhelpful, and we don’t want to subscribe to anything beyond Prime. But we keep using it because for basic questions, kitchen timers, and free music it works so much better than Siri.

Eugene Kim:

Internally, the team worried about the quality of user engagements. By then Alexa was getting a billion interactions per week, but most of those conversations were trivial, commands to play music or ask about the weather. That meant less opportunities to monetize. Amazon can’t make money from Alexa telling you the weather — and playing music through the Echo only gives Amazon a small piece of the proceeds.

Nick Heer (Hacker News):

We are often told technology companies are reinventing the way many of us will purchase products, but I do not buy that narrative.


Update (2023-11-20): Annie Palmer (via Hacker News):

Amazon is cutting “several hundred” jobs in its Alexa division, and axing several unspecified initiatives in the unit.

Todd Bishop (via Hacker News):

Dave Limp, the longtime executive in charge of the Devices & Services division, announced in August that he would be leaving the company. Former Microsoft executive Panos Panay was named his successor in September.

Amazon has made recent cuts in other departments including music and gaming.


I worked in the Amazon Alexa division. The level of incompetence coupled with arrogance was astounding. Many of the people running Alexa had been there since 2012. Its was tyranny by those who started in that organization first. Backstabbing, politics, bad engineering, nepotistic promotions. The scientists were so far behind, almost all models were off the shelf implementations pulled from Github. Huge amounts of capital flushed down the drain.

The flip side might be that Alexa was ahead of its time, and that the ML capabilities werent there. But I bet Alexa spent more than OpenAI by a huge margin. Amazon’s fundamental flaw is trying to solve innovative business problems with incremental improvement. This only works in operations heavy businesses, like retail and AWS. AWS is really just extremely competent operations on top of server management.


But I went to the [Google] executives at the time in charge and said look, this really isn’t going to be an assistant if it doesn’t have the APIs into services that users need to accomplish actual tasks. Sharing some information and changing the music isn’t what a butler does, a butler anticipates your needs and executes on them -- and we can’t do that until we have the APIs to anticipate and execute.

I was, of course, ignored, because in my naiveness at the time and I didn’t realize it didn’t matter what the assistant DID, it mattered what the narrative to investors was about its potential. So 2017 I/O Sundar announces the assistant and it looks great inside Allo, and it’s a great demo -- mission accomplished.

Now 6 years+ later, it’s a stagnant, overspent team across the space -- because why? Because it can’t do anything for users. All these years and billions later it still can’t do anything important -- it has no user journey.

And it took me equally as long to realize, that still doesn’t matter. FAANG has gotten so large that the stock bump that comes from narrative outpaces actual revenue from working products.


Android Contact Tracing App Installed Without Consent

Hiawatha Bray (Hacker News):

A nonprofit law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for allegedly working with Google to secretly install COVID-tracing software onto as many as a million smartphones.


Dozens of states issued such apps, including Massachusetts. But few people voluntarily used the Massachusetts version. According to the lawsuit, the state health department worked with Google to develop a version that was installed on all Android phones, without permission from the phone owner.


Android owners are given the choice of whether to activate the Massachusetts app. But the suit alleges that the app transmits and receives data through its Bluetooth radio even when it’s not activated. This data can be accessed by Google and by a variety of apps installed on Android phones, the suit claims. If enough data is collected from enough phones, data scientists can “de-anonymize” the information and figure out the identities of the phone users.

Jessica Lyons Hardcastle:

The Massachusetts app, according to the legal complaint, gave the public health department, Google, application developers, and others access to the device owners’ media access control addresses, wireless network IP addresses, phone numbers, contacts and emails, thus making these parties privy to the owners’ personal information, location and movement. If Android users discovered and deleted the COVID-19 tracer, the state’s health agency would reinstall it on their devices, the lawsuit alleges.


“In sum, DPH installed spyware that deliberately tracks and records movement and personal contacts onto over a million mobile devices without their owners’ permission and awareness,” the lawsuit claims [PDF]. “On knowledge and belief, that spyware still exists on the overwhelming majority of the devices on which it was installed.”


Apple’s Device Analytics Can Identify iCloud Users

Tommy Mysk (Hacker News):

Apple’s analytics data include an ID called “dsId”. We were able to verify that “dsId” is the “Directory Services Identifier”, an ID that uniquely identifies an iCloud account. Meaning, Apple’s analytics can personally identify you[…]

Apple states in their Device Analytics & Privacy statement that the collected data does not identify you personally. This is inaccurate. We also showed earlier that the #AppStore keeps sending detailed analytics to Apple even when sharing analytics is switched off.

Sami Fathi:

On Apple’s device analytics and privacy legal page, the company says no information collected from a device for analytics purposes is traceable back to a specific user. “iPhone Analytics may include details about hardware and operating system specifications, performance statistics, and data about how you use your devices and applications. None of the collected information identifies you personally,” the company claims.


Apple has historically taken a hard stance on user privacy, repeatedly claiming it believes privacy is a “fundamental human right.” Apple’s privacy claims have been under increasing scrutiny in recent months, with the company now facing a class action lawsuit accusing it of tracking users without their consent.

Nick Heer (Hacker News):

Apple also refers to the DSID by other names, such as the “Apple User Account Identifier”, “Apple ID Number”, “Apple ID Reference Number”, and “Original Unique Identifier”. Based on my 2021 data request it is, as described, a proxy for a specific Apple ID. It identifies you with Apple’s services, including for things like marketing and communications efforts. I have a spreadsheet of the nearly nine hundred times me and my DSID ignored Apple’s attempts to upsell me on Apple One, a service which launched just thirteen months before I made this data request. I also have a list of all the times I contacted AppleCare and the same identifier is attached.


The researchers point to Apple’s Device Analytics & Privacy document where it says in the iOS Device Analytics section that “[n]one of the collected information identifies you personally”. But this does not pertain to Apple’s services which are covered by entirely different policies. Both the App Store and Apple Music say usage information is collected. These are not device analytics, they are services analytics.


In fairness, perhaps the Device Analytics toggle in Settings should be worded more clearly to indicate that turning it off will not opt out of store and services activity. I am also shocked by the granularity of information in these storefront analytics. It is relevant to Apple’s recommendation engine if I listened to an album or song and whether I finished it, but it is hard to see what value it has in knowing my track playback to the millisecond. I also think the identifier used by Apple’s services should be different than the Apple ID that is correlated with your device purchase history and support requests.

Ruffin Bailey:

That at first seems mostly like fair game info, doesn’t it? But if you say “I don’t want anyone tracking me,” I can understand why you don’t want and, what’s more, wouldn’t expect all of that pushed up into the pipe. As a developer, it’d be nice if Apple had to ask for that info the same as anyone else.

It certainly fails the Steve Jobs test:

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain language, and repeatedly.

See also: Bruce Schneier, TidBITS Talk, Florian Mueller.


iCloud for Windows Downloading Other People’s Photos

sleeping_ghost (via Hacker News):

iCloud for Windows is corrupting videos recorded from an iPhone 14 pro max resulting in black videos with scan lines. On rare occasions, it is inserting stills into videos from unknown sources, possibly other’s iCloud accounts. I’ve been shown photos of other people’s families I’ve never seen in my life, soccer games, and other random photos.


I have been able to replicate this bug on 3 different PC’s, 2 of which were running the latest version of Windows 11 pro, and the last running Windows 10 pro. I have tried on multiple other devices including an iPhone 11 Pro and an iPad.


I reported it to the apple security team and they told me it wasn’t a “security concern”!


This happened to me during a Google Takeout export when I was degoogling in late 2019. I recall going through some photos from the earlier 2010’s and some random pictures of other people were popping up. About a month or so later I received an email from Google letting me know that some of my files may have been accidentally in other people’s exports. Since then, I stopped using apps like Google Photos and cloud storage in general.


Mastodon URIs, Not URLs

Chris Hanson:

One of the annoying things about Mastodon is that it’s tough to share Mastodon links and have them open in your favorite app instead of in a web browser. This is due to the lack of a shared scheme or a shared server—which makes sense for a distributed/federated system, but doesn’t help its usability.

One thing the community should do is use a URI instead of a URL or a Twitter/AOL-style “handle” to refer to an account: A URI is a Uniform Resource Identifier that is resolved to a URL, which makes it easier to have all links to Mastodon accounts go to the user’s preferred app—and also enable the global namespace that ATP cares about so much.