Amazon expands its Sidewalk IoT network with an enterprise-grade bridge

Back in 2019, Amazon first announced its Sidewalk network, a new low-bandwidth, long-distance wireless protocol and network for connecting smart devices — and keeping them online when your own WiFi network, for example, goes down, by piggybacking on your neighbor’s network. Since last year, Amazon has been turning its Echo devices into Sidewalk bridges and select Ring and Tile devices can now access the network. Now, Amazon is launching its first professional-grade Sidewalk device meant to cover large areas like a university campus or park.

The full name for the new device is a mouthful: the Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro by Ring. It could be installed inside but is mostly meant to be set up outside — and ideally on a high spot — and can cover hundreds of devices up to five miles away (depending on the local circumstances, of course).

To test the devices, Amazon partnered with Arizona State University, which will install these new Sidewalk bridges on light poles on its Tempe campus. The University Technology Office plans to use it as a proof-of-concept with plans to connect sunlight and temperature sensors, CO2 detectors and particle counters.

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon is also partnering with Thingy, an IoT company that specializes in environmental monitoring, to install its air quality monitoring tools to alert first responders of potential wildfires.

“Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro brings us the power of [Long Range] in a massive number of needed locations, easy integration with our existing applications in AWS, and trusted security for the devices and applications. We are very excited to work with Amazon Sidewalk to measure air quality and wildfires with our sensors and help solve the connectivity challenges for these critical applications,” said Scott Waller, CEO and co-founder of Thingy.

But beyond the device itself, it’s the fact that Amazon continues to invest in the Sidewalk ecosystem that’s most important here.

“We’re building a network, we’re enabling actors to help the IoT industry,” Stefano Landi, the director of Amazon Sidewalk, told me. “At the end of the day, if we want to drive the proliferation of smart and connected devices everywhere, you need to have the right network. If you talk to IoT developers today, yes, there are many options, but either it’s very expensive, from a connectivity perspective vs. cellular, or the range is limited, or it’s draining the battery, or it’s just that the overall development cycle is too complex. So we felt that we should invest and that’s what we’ve done and we continue to invest in enabling these networks so that the IoT community can build any type of application: consumer, enterprise, public sector. ”

Landi noted that only a few months after launching the network, the company now has very strong residential coverage in more than 100 major U.S. metro areas. In part, of course, that’s because there are a lot of Echo devices in America’s homes and unless users opt out, most modern Echo smart speakers now have Sidewalk enabled by default. Not everybody is comfortable with that, though Amazon would argue that it designed its network to be privacy-first and that it won’t use a lot of bandwidth (it’s mostly for passing alerts, not your Ring camera’s video feed, after all). But it’s a fair guess that most users aren’t even aware of Sidewalk to begin with.

Covering a residential area is one thing, though. With the Sidewalk Bridge Pro, businesses can now also cover entire swaths of land to connect their sensors. There seems to be some demand for this, because Landi noted that “more than a few thousand companies” have already reached out to Amazon to ask about commercial use cases — mostly in connection with AWS IoT, the company’s cloud-based managed IoT service. A lot of this interest, Landis said, is coming from companies that want to build public sector solutions, mostly around smart city services.

“The Sidewalk Bridge Pro is a professional-grade bridge that is exactly tailored to be deployed outside of those [residential areas],” explained Landis. “So that now you have coverage pretty much everywhere. Think about commercial centers, parks, city parks, state parks, municipal parks, wildness areas, commercial area, and so on. Now you really bring that ubiquitous connectivity, so when you’re there, building a solution, you know that coverage is going to be pretty much anywhere that you need it.”

Landis noted that while he expects most users to install the bridge outdoors, it can also used indoors to cover a warehouse or a large store. And even though it’s explicitly called the ‘Pro,” we shouldn’t expect the company to launch a consumer-style “non-pro” version anytime soon. That’s what the Echo and Ring devices are for, after all.

Amazon to lower its cut of Alexa skill developer revenue starting in 2022

Amazon is joining other tech giants by lowering its cut of developer revenue generated by voice apps, known as Alexa skills, which run on Amazon’s smart speakers and other Alexa-powered devices. The company this week announced it would next year reduce its commission from 30% to 20% for Alexa skill developers who earn less than $1 million in revenue through things like Skill purchases (paid installs), in-skill purchases (the Alexa equivalent of in-app purchases) and skill subscriptions.

The changes will go into effect starting in the second quarter of 2022, and will be joined by an expansion of developer benefits designed to help third-party developers generate traffic and increase their skills’ visibility. Amazon says developers who generate less than $1 million in the previous calendar year, as well as new Alexa developers, will be eligible for the new program.

The update to Amazon’s commission structure for Alexa developer revenue follows similar moves made by other tech giants, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

Just over a year ago, Apple responded to the increased regulatory scrutiny of its App Store business by dropping its commission rate to 15% for small businesses developers with under $1 million in App Store revenues over the course of a year. Previously, those developers had to pay Apple’s standard 30% commission. Google soon followed suit with a similar program for Google Play which lowered its cut to 15%, with a slight differentiation as to how it calculated when the lowered commissions would apply. Both companies have since gone on to carve out further exceptions to their standard commission rates for select categories of apps, including news publishers and other subscription apps.

In addition, Microsoft this year updated its revenue share terms to more favorable rates, with an 85/15 revenue split for app developers using its payments platform and an 88/12 split for game developers.

Amazon’s Alexa platform, however, isn’t quite in the same category as these other, larger app ecosystems.

While the company had originally planned for a voice app catalog to rival any other app store, the reality is that few developers have been able to capitalize on Alexa’s sizable footprint in U.S. consumers’ homes to create profitable businesses.

In fact, Amazon has struggled over the years with skill discovery, as studies found that Alexa device owners largely used their smart speakers and screens for their built-in functions — like controlling smart home devices, playing music, making shopping lists, setting timers, listening to news and getting quick updates on things like the weather or sports scores, for example. Even voice-based shopping, which Amazon had hoped would take place through Alexa devices, never fully took off.

In other words, Amazon’s adjustment to its commission rates can’t be viewed in the same light as the changes to other app stores’ policies. While, to some extent, Amazon likely feels pressure to follow market trends, it clearly also hopes that lowered commissions could incentivize Alexa developers to build for its platform.

In the same announcement, Amazon also said it will roll out more benefits designed to increase developers’ potential revenue under the new program that begins next year. These additional perks could be worth “up to an additional 10 percent” of a developer’s potential revenue, Amazon noted. The benefits will include incentive programs, personalized feedback to help developers optimize their skills, help identifying monetization opportunities, and more.

Amazon has repeatedly tried direct payments for top skill developers over the years. It’s unclear for now if the new incentives will be different, or just more of the same. Amazon said it will share more details about the program closer to its launch next year.

The company over the past year, has tried to bring back interest in skill development, by introducing more opportunities to make Alexa skills profitable. It launched Paid Skills, where consumers pay upfront to access the add-on voice app, introduced Alexa Shopping Actions to allow developers to sell from within their skill (and earn affiliate income), expanded access to in-skill purchases to more international developers, and reduced the cost of hosting skills to nearly $0.