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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos – TechCrunch

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It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers — Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event — an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire a company that knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies that seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd — and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple — at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multi-color palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

From a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together — and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use — all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in “frenemy” territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages, like Anker.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and the key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most — namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify), then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and far between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.



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Hard-coded key vulnerability in Logix PLCs has severity score of 10 out of 10

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Rockwell Automation

Hardware that is widely used to control equipment in factories and other industrial settings can be remotely commandeered by exploiting a newly disclosed vulnerability that has a severity score of 10 out of 10.

The vulnerability is found in programmable logic controllers from Rockwell Automation that are marketed under the Logix brand. These devices, which range from the size of a small toaster to a large bread box or even bigger, help control equipment and processes on assembly lines and in other manufacturing environments. Engineers program the PLCs using Rockwell software called Studio 5000 Logix Designer.

On Thursday, the US Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration warned of a critical vulnerability that could allow hackers to remotely connect to Logix controllers and from there alter their configuration or application code. The vulnerability requires a low skill level to be exploited, CISA said.

The vulnerability, which is tracked as CVE-2021-22681, is the result of the Studio 5000 Logix Designer software making it possible for hackers to extract a secret encryption key. This key is hard-coded into both Logix controllers and engineering stations and verifies communication between the two devices. A hacker who obtained the key could then mimic an engineering workstation and manipulate PLC code or configurations that directly impact a manufacturing process.

“Any affected Rockwell Logix controller that is exposed on the Internet is potentially vulnerable and exploitable,” said Sharon Brizinov, principal vulnerability researcher at Claroty, one of three organizations Rockwell credited with independently discovering the flaw. “To successfully exploit this vulnerability, an attacker must first obtain the secret key and have the knowledge of the cryptographic algorithm being used in the authentication process.”

Brizinov said that Claroty notified Rockwell of the vulnerability in 2019. Rockwell didn’t disclose it until Thursday. Rockwell also credited Kaspersky Lab and Soonchunhyang University researchers Eunseon Jeong, Youngho An, Junyoung Park, Insu Oh, and Kangbin Yim.

The vulnerability affects just about every Logix PLC Rockwell sells, including:

  • CompactLogix 1768
  • CompactLogix 1769
  • CompactLogix 5370
  • CompactLogix 5380
  • CompactLogix 5480
  • ControlLogix 5550
  • ControlLogix 5560
  • ControlLogix 5570
  • ControlLogix 5580
  • DriveLogix 5560
  • DriveLogix 5730
  • DriveLogix 1794-L34
  • Compact GuardLogix 5370
  • Compact GuardLogix 5380
  • GuardLogix 5570
  • GuardLogix 5580
  • SoftLogix 5800

Rockwell isn’t issuing a patch that directly addresses the problems stemming from the hard-coded key. Instead, the company is recommending that PLC users follow specific risk mitigation steps. The steps involve putting the controller mode switch into run, and if that’s not possible, following other recommendations that are specific to each PLC model.

Those steps are laid out in an advisory Rockwell is making available to customers, as well as in the above-linked CISA advisory. Rockwell and CISA also recommend PLC users follow standard security-in-depth security advice. Chief among the recommendations is ensuring that control system devices aren’t accessible from the Internet.

Security professionals universally admonish engineers to place critical industrial systems behind a firewall so they aren’t exposed to the Internet. Unfortunately, engineers struggling with high workloads and limited budgets often don’t heed the advice. The latest reminder of this came earlier this month when a municipal water treatment plant in Florida said that an intruder accessed a remote system and tried to lace drinking water with lye. Plant employees used the same TeamViewer password and didn’t put the system behind a firewall.

If Logix PLC users are segmenting industrial control networks and following other best practices, it’s unlikely that the risk posed by CVE-2021-22681 is minimal. And if people haven’t implemented these practices, hackers probably have easier ways to hijack the devices. That said, this vulnerability is serious enough that all Logix PLC users should pay attention to the CISA and Rockwell advisories.

Claroty has issued its own writeup here.

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Google’s Smart TV software will have a “dumb TV” mode

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The new Google TV is a fine smart TV interface, but when it gets integrated into some TV sets later this year, its best feature might be that you can turn it off. A report from 9to5Google details an upcoming “Basic TV” mode that will be built into Google TV, which turns off just about all the smart TV features. Right now, Google TV is only available in the new Chromecast, but Google TV will be built into upcoming TVs from Sony and TCL. Basic mode means we’ll get smart TVs with a “dumb TV” mode.

The rise of smart TVs has led to the extinction of dumb TVs—today, basically every TV has some kind of computer and operating system built into it. If you’re actually expecting to live with a TV for several years, the problem with smart TVs is that the dirt-cheap computers inside these TVs don’t last as long as the display does. When your smart TV is a few years old, you might still have a perfectly good display panel, but you’ll be forced to interact with it through a slow, old, possibly abandoned integrated computer. Companies should sell dumb TVs without any of this crap permanently integrated into them, but if they refuse, letting consumers turn off the software is the next best thing.

When the new feature rolls out, you’ll be asked to choose between “Basic TV” or “Google TV” at setup. 9to5Google says that with basic mode, “almost everything is stripped, leaving users with just HDMI inputs and Live TV if they have an antenna plugged directly into the TV. Casting support, too, is dropped.” The UI notes that you’ll be turning off all apps, the Google Assistant, and personalized recommendations.

9to5 found this feature via the ADT-3 development set-top box and the Android 12 developer preview, so it’s not entirely clear how it will work when it’s running on a real TV. It seems like basic mode will only show a minimal set of icons for things like input-switching and settings. There’s also a big banner advertising Google TV mode, which you’ll presumably just have to learn to ignore. A Google spokesperson told the site that this feature is destined to hit TVs sold with integrated Google TV in the future.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between “Android TV” and “Google TV,” Google TV is kind of like the next version of Android TV. Google TV is just the Android TV codebase with a new interface, which offers things like a unified search. The upgrade path for existing Android TV devices is Google TV, assuming your device manufacturer is actually shipping updates. By 2022, Google says TV manufacturers won’t be allowed to ship Android TV and will instead ship Google TV. There are some product lines that Google just loves to rebrand every few years, and Android TV/Google TV is one of them.

Google TV will be in Sony’s entire Bravia XR 2021 lineup and select TCL TVs later this year.

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Paramount+ will carry new Star Trek series Strange New Worlds and Prodigy

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Enlarge / Key art for the new Star Trek series Star Trek: Prodigy.

ViacomCBS

In an online event for investors, ViacomCBS revealed several new details about CBS All Access replacement Paramount+, including pricing as well as two new Star Trek series that will premiere on the network. Also, the company announced that a much-anticipated Showtime show will end up on Paramount+ instead.

Paramount+, which was announced several months ago, will launch on March 4 in the United States, Canada, and 18 Latin American countries. As with CBS All Access, both an ad-supported and ad-free plan will be offered. In the US, the ad-supported one will cost $4.99 per month, while the ad-free plan will cost $9.99.

That $4.99 per month is $1 cheaper than the ad-supported version of CBS All Access. However, this cheaper plan will not include local CBS stations. The service is also expected to launch in Nordic countries within a few weeks and in Australia sometime later this year.

When it launches, Paramount+ will have 2,500 films and 30,000 TV episodes, according to ViacomCBS executives. That will include some original series, many of which will be available in 4K and Dolby Vision HDR.

Original series will include those we’ve already seen on CBS All Access, including the large slate of Star Trek shows such as Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks.

Two new Star Trek series have recently been announced: a CG animated kids’ show called Star Trek: Prodigy, and a spinoff about Captain Pike and Mr. Spock called Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Prodigy was planned for airing on Nickelodeon (which is owned by the Viacom part of ViacomCBS), and it will still air there— but only after appearing on Paramount+ first.

Additionally, it has been confirmed that the long-anticipated and much delayed series based on the video game franchise Halo will be delivered via Paramount+; it was originally planned as a Showtime series. Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on the show, which is planned to premiere in the first quarter of 2022. According to Deadline, shooting was well underway when the pandemic forced a shutdown. During the break, it was decided to move the show to the broad-audience Paramount+ service rather than “adult” and “sophisticated” Showtime. (Those descriptors were used by Showtime exec David Nevins to describe the network.)

Other content includes a Frasier reboot, as well as some 2021 theatrical film releases like Mission Impossible 7.

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