Amazon and Apple are quietly building networks that know the location of everything
When Jeff Bezos got up on stage at Amazon’s Alexa and Echo event in Seattle this week, he namechecked just one product, the Echo Studio speaker. “It’s incredible what the team has done,” he said, “this is a product that at a $200 price point outperforms many products at $500 price points.”
Talking to journalists at The Spheres HQ afterwards, though, he began to geek out over something very different: networking. Specifically Amazon’s new Sidewalk protocol, which got just four minutes of air time at the event: “People don’t realise yet how important that intermediate range is going to be.”
If you judged the future of Sidewalk based on VP of devices and services Dave Limp’s modest intro, you’d think Bezos had slipped up and said ‘people’ when he in fact meant ‘dogs’. That’s because Amazon’s low-power, low-cost wireless standard was introduced to us via the first Sidewalk reference design, the Ring Fetch dog tracker, which will alert you when your dog leaves your geofenced garden when it launches in 2020.
Compared to the nugget buried in Apple’s most recent keynote, though, this could be viewed as hyperbole. Apple’s U1 chip – which allows precise, indoor positional tracking via the latest iPhones and will power, at the very least, directional AirDrop file-sharing – popped up on screen but was never even mentioned. The interest-piquing phrase “GPS at the scale of your living room” was saved for the online iPhone product pages rather than the bombast of the Steve Jobs Theater.
As modest at these two announcements were, then, it’s clear that both Amazon and Apple have embarked on similar missions to extend their control of their customers’ connectivity in and around the home. Amazon’s Sidewalk, which operates on the 900MHz band typically used for amateur radio and emergency services, and Apple’s close-range, ultra-wideband positioning with the U1 are designed to get Amazon out of the home and Apple inside it. Or at least give each company more power in their respective weak areas.
Amazon dominates Google and Apple’s smart-home ecosystems with a base of controllers, sensors and routers, but it abandoned designs on Fire phones years ago; now its Echo Buds and experimental smartglasses are breaking out of the home.
Apple, meanwhile, still doesn’t have the third-party hardware compatibility of its rivals inside the home with HomeKit, but, despite slowing sales, can’t be matched for tight control over software and services on its iPhones, not to mention its existing initiatives around spatial positioning and location like Bluetooth iBeacons.
Many a promising Internet of Things protocol has vowed to fill the gaps between Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular but failed to get off the ground, most recently Thread, which is backed by a consortium including Google, Qualcomm and Samsung. Both Amazon and Apple have the hardware scale, though, to build up the base of access points needed to create a useful network before reaching out to, most likely, iOS developers in Apple’s case, and hardware makers already on board with Alexa in Amazon’s case.
For Amazon, in fact, that work has already begun as Sidewalk originally came out of the Ring team’s ambition to extend its connected security devices out into gardens. “Ring lighting was the first time we ran into it as a company, because we wanted to extend out onto the sidewalk,” says Daniel Rausch, VP of smart home at Amazon (which owns Ring).
The smart outoor Ring lights are already out. Products like the Smart Floodlight and Pathlight list a “wireless connection to the Ring Bridge” in the tech specs but eagle-eyed Ring owners had already started to figure out what band Amazon was playing with for this connection, before the Sidewalk announcement.
“They’ve been using an internal version of the protocol on the freely available and unlicensed 900MHz part of the spectrum already,” explains Rausch. “What we realised was ‘woah, we can actually do something special’. We can make a version of this protocol which is secure and have this unbelievably ubiquitous coverage if we bring it all together, neighbours and neighbours and neighbours.”
Amazon didn’t announce any official Sidewalk gateways, though Ring video doorbells, Ring security cameras, eero routers and Echo devices could all be viable candidates, alongside the existing Ring Bridge. In its testing, though, it sent out 700 gateway devices to Amazon employees in the Los Angeles basin, and because each one has a range of between 500m and up to a mile, Amazon was able to “basically cover where everyone lives in LA.”
Not only is it easy to see how Amazon could market a Sidewalk Connect Kit, in which like the Alexa Connect Kit, Amazon itself handles the connectivity, maintenance and security for a fee, Rausch’s use of the word neighbours also brings to mind its currently beleaguered connected Neighbourhood Watch scheme. An innocent smart dog tracker like Fetch fits perfectly into this model of Amazon-networked communities sharing video, alerts and location tracking.
“Stay tuned on any partner news but we are opening it up next year in high availability, I would say, to partners,” says Rausch who points to its experience with AWS, rigorous standards of authentication and the promise of over-the-air software updates as indicators that Amazon will be “good shepherds of that network for customers.”
Why so muted then from the two tech giants? Amazon’s Dave Limp described Sidewalk, which has launched for developers, as in the “very early” stages, and Apple, too, hasn’t announced any partners for its indoor positioning yet. In fact, even its own long-rumoured Tag tracker, similar to Tile’s devices, which was said to use the same network of UWB devices as the AirDrop feature instead of Bluetooth and GPS, didn’t make an appearance at the Cupertino launch in September.
It could be that with the privacy-focused techlash of recent years, both are treading carefully in the launch stages. Just look at how Amazon’s acquisition of mesh networking company eero was received earlier this year or the widespread interest in Huawei’s level of involvement with 5G networks. Location tracking in particular is currently the focus of much more granular controls in iOS 13 and Android 10 than ever before.
Or perhaps it’s simply because bandwidth isn’t sexy and the time to shout about it to customers is when you have shiny products and apps that actually make good use of it.
Still, the technologies being set in motion now could be extremely important to Amazon and Apple’s near-future ambitions. Future Apple augmented reality glasses – widely expected to be its next big form factor – may contain U1 chips and employ both these and the ones inside the new iPhones to allow precise, spatial positioning for AR overlays as you ‘point’ your glasses towards real world objects and tech products.
As for Amazon, Dave Limp also mentioned water sensors for growing vegetables, a mailbox sensor and a weather sensor as potential use cases so it’s not all about tracking. But aside from the other obvious low-cost, long-battery trackers for children, elderly relatives and belongings that could also be in Sidewalk’s future, how about its Scout delivery robots? Some iteration of these devices could benefit from a low-power, low-bandwidth neighbourhood network of Ring and Amazon devices.
Sure, it’s possible that each of these experiments could fizzle out after one or two concepts that don’t catch on, but more than likely, these two long-term projects – close-range for Apple, intermediate for Amazon – could help to define how each company attempts to join up hardware and services over the next decade.