Amazon Echo

    •   Chaim  •   IoT, Smart Home, Amazon

Introduction

The first device I want to review is the Amazon Echo. I purchased it, I mean, my wife got it for me as a gift for my birthday last year. Having for over a year, I’ve come to use it everyday. In fact, when the released the Dot back in the spring, I bought one. This is the review of essentially both devices.

The Amazon Echo is Amazon’s foray into the assistant landscape. The speculation is this came from there their failed Fire phone, which had bit and piece built in. Remember, Amazon is not just a marketplace but an actual internet backbone, running a large portion of the websites (around 30%) off their servers. They can leverage those servers to do the heavy processing.

The initial goal for Amazon is to try and get you to buy stuff from them, afterall they are a marketplace. Any reduction in friction is a positive for Amazon. Using your voice to order things is probably helpful especially if you are like me, and forget to write empty items on the grocery list.

The Amazon Echo is $179, comes in black and white

The Amazon Echo Dot is $49, comes in black and white, and even in a buy 5 get 1 free.

Is it necessary or useful

No, it is not necessary, but it is extremely useful. If I didn’t have it, my day wouldn’t suffer. However, now that I’ve come to use it, it has been extremely helpful. The voice is very receptive. Usually the problem with these things is that the voice doesn’t hear you properly. Nine out of ten times the voice works picks up. There is a way to train it, and it does help. It can figure out most commands, but knowledge of the commands is a must.

My Son talking to Alexa

As you can see, my son knows the commands, but his voice is not pronounced enough to invoke it.

Smart Home - The Killer Feature

I’m an Alexa fanboy with this. They made it work with the two competing standards Zigbee and Zwave. What that means is most likely, any smart home device with one of those capabilities will work. This is absolutely the killer feature, and the major use of my device. Being able to talk to adjust lights, temperature, and other smart home appliance, is the reason my entire family likes it. The other things are great, but this makes it worth every penny.

My daily routine is as follows:
  • Alexa wakes me up in the morning with the alarm it has set. I could have it turn on the lights gradually, but my – wife doesn’t like that. It can play my “wake up playlist” if I choose.
  • I ask Alexa to read me my news briefing, which I can customize.
  • Alexa will tell me the weather
  • I can ask Alexa for commuting info. I can ask it also for my daily schedule
  • As I go downstairs, I ask Alexa to turn on the lights.
Shopping Lists and To-Do

Alexa is great for your lists. My next purchase is having a dot in the kitchen for exactly this. A simple command of “Alexa, add milk to grocery list” just works. The biggest problem is the ability for the shopper to have this list quickly. By going to the Alexa web site quickly brings up the list, and the ability to delete it off the list

Note: Amazon wants you to buy from them, so if you say the wrong command, it will take you to their ordering page. This isn’t a big deal, Simply tell Alexa to cancel.

Alarms

You can ask Alexa to turn on any alarms in any weird combination. “Alexa wake me up on weekdays at 6am,” actually works. Or you can say “Alexa wake me in up an hour.” Snooze also works.

Music

Recently you can connect to three music services, Amazon Prime, Spotify, or Pandora. Since I use Google Play music, you have to send it through your phone. Connecting to bluetooth is as easy as “Alexa connect phone.” The play, next, stop buttons all work in both cases. I really wish Google Play Music or Apple Music was supported, but this will be an issue in all smart devices moving forward.

On the Echo the speaker is fine. I’m not a huge audiophile, but I didn’t think the speaker was bad. Remember, it is only as good as the source material, in this case streaming MP3. The Dot doesn’t have a real speaker, but the speaker is adequate for voice commands, and playing music where quality doesn’t matter. On the Dot, you can bluetooth or 3.5mm cable it to your better speakers.

Note: Speakers need to be on in order for sound to work.

Audiobooks

Audible feature works great. You can play all voice enabled books. Note, that there is a difference between kindle books, which has the mechanical voice, and the Audible books that has paid actor’s voice. Not that I want a mechanical voice reading me VIM commands, but I can.

Podcasts

TuneIn is used for podcasts. You can say “Alexa play [podcast name],” and if the service has it, it will play. I just realized my podcast is not there.

Purchasing

The main feature that Amazon wants to sell you is the ability to sell you things. You can say “Alexa, buy toilet paper,” and it will try to select the correct item. You can confirm a purchase with or without an authorization pin. I recommend the pin, just in case of an errant command. You do get an email to verify the confirmation that you can cancel. My two experiences have been negative, so I wouldn’t recommend using Alexa to order things. In general Amazon prices are not the best on durable goods.

Is it simple to use

Yes, absolutely, it is simple to use. Amazon has a great step by step walkthrough on how to set everything up. Basically, you connect to it using the voice guidance, then you finish the connection on your smartphone. No more having to hunt and peck the wifi password like on your TV. Changing settings is also very simple. You can even ask Alexa for help. Even if you don’t want the app, you can go to the web site to do the setup.

Every Friday there is a “What’s new with Alexa” email, that tells you the new features. This is one of the highlights of my Friday, finding out what new functionality I can now do.

Is it secure

The answer to this is time will tell. Currently, there have been no glaring security problems. Just like all IoT devices, you have to trust the manufacturer. In this case Amazon. Amazon has a vested interest in keeping things secure.

So a few privacy issues pop up. First it is always listening. It has to listen to the codename to activate, but it still listens. For a lot of people this is a deal breaker. Amazon has eased fears by having a mute button on the Alexa. When you push it the ring turns red.

Second, all your voice commands are being sent to Amazon. This is for training purposes. In the app itself you can thumbs up / thumbs down the voice transcription. If you thumbs down, the app will ask you to provide feedback.

Since Alexa doesn’t differentiate sound, any voice can activate it. You can have a bullhorn and roll the street saying “Alexa set alarm for 3am,” and it will comply. I don’t know if we have the voice recognition technology yet to address this. Also, if my wife wants to know what is on my calendar or music I was listening to, having the profile set becomes a privacy issue.

Alexa doesn’t stop other manufacturers from failing in their security. If a lock company wants to allow “Alexa unlock doors” that will be a problem.

Can it be used by other members in the household

Yes. Yes, it can. This is a major problem for most IoT devices. Alexa uses your Family Prime membership to address other members in the household. You can say “Alexa, switch profile,” and it will switch to my wife’s account. You will need to set this up online (not that easy the first time), but it does work. The command to switch is sometimes annoying, but until they can recognize voice, it is the only way. Switching profiles allows each member to have their own music, audible, news, calendar settings.

Overall

I really like the Alexa. Clearly, this will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. If you are thinking about smart home, the Alexa should be your main hub. Will Google Home, or Siri, take over? Time will tell, but Alexa is light years ahead.

If you found this helpful, can you please use the links in order to buy. It helps me monotize the site without putting ads everywhere.

Buy

Amazon Echo

Dot

Navigating the Internet of Things

    •   Chaim  •   IoT, Smart Home

I never thought I would do anything with the Internet of Things so quickly. You can hear me on my podcast completely rail against its security, but over the last six months, I’ve expanded from nothing, to many different devices. People are generally interested, but they want a normal person’s perspective. I want to offer that to them.

Before we start, I want to mention a few things:

  • I will use Amazon Affiliate Links for the items I’m reviewing.
  • I will state if items were purchased, or given to me to review.

What I currently Own:

What I’m Looking For:

  • Is the item necessary/useful? What problem does it solve?
  • Is it simple to use?
  • Is it secure?
  • Can it be used by other members in the household?

Is it necessary?

I see a ton of new IoT devices that are just useless. The product checks off random checkbox features that the marketing team decided were necessary. Most of these things are features are implemented poory, or no one will ever use.

Is it simple to use?

The the use becomes too complicated, no one will use it. When was the last time you checked for updates on your smart TV? Just like the blinking 12:00 on your old VCR, products should be helpful, and not overly complicated to set up and use.

Is it secure?

This is a big sticking point in my recommendations. Did the company just slap on some random sticker that says “Military Grade Encryption.” The last thing you want is a device being compromised, and being used to steal your traffic, or other credentials.

Can it be used by other members in the household?

My biggest gripe right now with all these devices is that you have to tie the product to one owner. Then you have to share that accounts user/pass with the rest of the household. While this isn’t a dealbreaker in most cases, it does reduce security because you will generally reuse the same email and password. Making a spreadsheet of really long and difficult passwords to have to copy/paste on mobile is daunting. What I would like is an account not tied to an email address. Preferably everyone in the household could create an unique one and tie the single product in. Then everyone can have a different user/pass, but at least a username can be standardized.

Educational Technology is Still A Privacy Nightmare

    •   Chaim  •   Education, Teaching, Privacy

It is the weekend before school starts, and once again, I’m excited to see all my students. I’m also sad that the summer is ending. Either way, I’m in awe about how much technology has been put into our schools. As a technology teacher, I am very happy to be a part of this tech explosion, but I’m noticing that not everyone knows how to implement it correctly.

Currently, there is money, lots and lots of money to #disrupt #education. Everyone wants to make the next great app to help students succeed. Most of these developers are missing key elements in good education, and more importantly failing to address privacy issues. I want to say that I am very pro technology, but it needs to be properly implemented.

Most notably are social networking apps that are being kluged together to inform students. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat (yes, this is a thing), are social networks, not networks for students. Twitter and Facebook was never meant to be used by teachers. I mean, 8 years later, I still don’t know the point of Twitter. Teachers should not be tweeting their students. Teachers should not require students to follow them on social media.

Having separate accounts is cumbersome. One of the accounts will suffer, or worse, things will be said accidentally on one of the accounts that was meant for the other accounts. If you are trying to have real student engagement, show them your life, not a sanitized account. Students will find your other account, and will follow it. Not to mention that separate accounts is a ton more work. Having students check a service they don’t use doesn’t add to the convenience that educational technology is trying to solve.

I constantly fight the segregation of school and personal data. For two years, I am still explaining to teachers that school documents need to be edited with a domain account, not a personal account. It is a very sore subject, but if you are going to create multiple social media accounts, why do you refuse to do it with your school email?

Not just with social networks, other learning solutions are being forced on students. As a teacher, I question any site that requires a student to have an account. If they are required to have an account, I am forced to thoroughly vet the privacy policy to make sure the collection of data doesn’t violate any rules. Most likely, I will have to make the assignment optional. I never want students to have to put their information somewhere they don’t feel comfortable with. A student’s concern should never be dismissed.

I want to show an example. I like Prezi, and Prezi has its purpose. As a teacher I do recommend them if you comply with their terms of use. Since I teach seniors, this is not a problem for me. Back in 2014 Prezi changed their Terms of Use to say that students under 13 are not allowed to create accounts because it violated COPPA guidelines. Prezi instead of trying to be compliant, sent out emails saying, they choose not to comply. Obviously this angered many, but this is a business decision, and teachers and students are not lucrative financially. Teachers obviously got mad. Here are two threads that show this.

  1. Here is Prezi Terms of Use
  2. Can children under 13 use Prezi?
  3. School Accounts without educational emails

Again, I’m not out here to fault Prezi. They realized that they need to enforce COPPA, and rather not be sued by the FTC. Here is what the FTC has to say about violating COPPA

Each teacher thinks their learning management system or ed tech is the best out there. I do. However, we can’t force students to have 9 different accounts. We also can’t force them to check them. It doesn’t make sense to force students to check nine different websites, two times a night for work, on the off chance their teacher had an announcement. For my club I thought Slack was it. Many kids like it, for the reason that it did notify them. Again, another site for students to check.

A school should have an educational technology policy that states, which social networks are allowed. A good school should probably say, email students only, or some approved Learning Management System. Students are considered minors, and with that come rules that dictate what information can and cannot be given away. The above social networks are not compliant, but they never claimed to be compliant. As we have seen nothing is unhackable. Not that students hold lots of information, but why should put students in a situation. As a teacher, anything I communicate with students, I want a backup. I never want to be put in a position where there is no written evidence of all communication. In addition to protecting myself, I want to protect my students.

At R00tz, the kids security conference at Defcon, I spoke about the violations of student’s privacy, and some ways to mitigate them. I told students to be proactive, vocal, and passionate about their right to privacy. I did tell them to not call their teachers out personally, but to speak to them in an adult tone, privately. Most students have never learned what is appropriate behavior online. I integrate appropriate online behavior, but other than some infographics, or a Friday discussion, there is no formal course that teaches digital citizenry (courses are coming, but not here yet).

You can see my video here: Chaim at R00tz

As we start the new year, please stop reading the blog posts of teachers who had some success using some esoteric app that didn’t have student privacy in mind. Someone who has never taught probably created the app, without thinking it through first. Use your many years of teaching experience to figure out if this is the best for your students.