The A’s have it: Amazon and Apple surprise/dismay this week

A 300Apple recognizes that aging is at the core of a device/health strategy.  Several features were announced at Apple’s developer conference this week that were specifically relevant for an older demographic. Perhaps that population, likely aged 70+, may not (yet) have an iPhone or an Apple Watch. Noting the tech adoption gaps cited by AARP (wearables) and Pew (smartphones), Apple wants to change that, whether via family member gifts and/or pressure, possibly from healthcare providers. iPhones will offer real-time assessment of walking steadiness and fall risk, based on balance, stability and coordination while carrying the phone, not the watch. In addition, Apple added ‘opt-in’ health data sharing with other iOS users, such as providers or even aging parents, so that caregivers or family can see any worrisome trends like fall risk. No, data can’t be shared with Android or PC users. Why not, since, oddly, those users can launch a FaceTime call? Just because.  

Meanwhile, speaking of opt-in, Amazon also made a questionable choice this week. Headlines about the new Amazon Sidewalk ‘feature’ offer an immediate opinion: How to opt out of Amazon’s bandwidth sharing Sidewalk network and many other less charitable titles about opting out. If you have a Ring doorbell or Echo devices, how do you feel about sharing your Internet connection with others? That doesn’t feel too prudent? Many pundits agreed and quickly spelled out the steps to opt out (also an issue with its Ring Neighbor app.) Interestingly, Amazon will only add this so-called capability to existing devices, while selling new devices that require you to explicitly opt in. That must have been quite a debate in product meetings: “This publicity is going to kill our future Echo and Ring sales!” 

Both of these company decisions have privacy and permission downsides.  The Apple scenario sounds great, unless you are a privacy-seeking older person, including one for whom the sharing setting was applied by caring family members. Does your aging mother really want you to know about her every stumble? And the walled garden of Apple devices and App Store (goal: maximize average revenue per user by force) requires all caring folks to be players. Long ago, the concept of interoperability was an enterprise buzzword that was due largely to incompatible apps. Along came the API in the 1970s – a way to cross these incompatible and steep software walls.  Apple has a 47% share of smartphone users in the US. From this vantage point, taking the high road for sharing data would seem the gracious thing to do with the other 53% — some of whose aging parents might be among the three quarters of smartphone users worldwide who may have Android phones.

The Amazon move is tech company obnoxious. No doubt the company’s explanation makes the opt in mode sound useful because Sidewalk (Welcome!) “helps devices like Amazon Echo devices, Ring Security Cams, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and Tile trackers work better at home and beyond the front door. When enabled, Sidewalk can unlock unique benefits for your device, support other Sidewalk devices in your community, and even locate pets or lost items.” Maybe the company thought this would be too tough to explain, so like Nike, why not “Just Do It?” They no doubt noted that Facebook and Google (and many others) base 100% of their revenue by sharing everything about us – what we say, what we ask, where we go — with advertisers who can then ‘personalize’ just what we might want to see. Maybe Amazon folk thus thought this would be no big deal. But privacy rules and permissions can and should change. Consider the defaults and decisions of tech companies that require one to go through hoops of privacy-pretzel navigation to opt out – people can protest. Amazon should note that its devices were purchased (not free!) for specific uses. Saying ‘only kidding’ later is typical tech bait-and-switch. And it is obnoxious.

[See newest report, The Future of Wearables and Older Adults 2021]

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