The Amazon Dash Button: A Retrospective

The Internet of Things will revolutionize everything! Manufacturing? Dog walking? Coffee bean refilling? Car driving? Food eating? Put a sensor in it! The marketing makes it pretty clear that there’s no part of our lives which isn’t enhanced with The Internet of Things. Why? Because with a simple sensor and a symphony of corporate hand waving about machine learning an iPhone-style revolution is just around the corner! Enter: Amazon Dash, circa 2014.

The first product in the Dash family was actually a barcode scanning wand which was freely given to Amazon Fresh customers and designed to hang in the kitchen or magnet to the fridge. When the Fresh customer ran out of milk they could scan the carton as it was being thrown away to add it to their cart for reorder. I suspect these devices were fairly expensive, and somewhat too complex to be as frequently used as Amazon wanted (thus the extremely limited launch). Amazon’s goal here was to allow potential customers to order with an absolute minimum of friction so they can buy as much as possible. Remember the “Buy now with 1-Click” button?

That original Dash Wand was eventually upgraded to include a push button activated Alexa (barcode scanner and fridge magnet intact) and is generally available. But Amazon had pinned its hopes on a new beau. Mid 2015 Amazon introduced the Dash Replenishment Service along with a product to be it’s exemplar – the Dash Button. The Dash Button was to be the 1-Click button of the physical world. The barcode-scanning Wands require the user to remember the Wand was nearby, find a barcode, scan it, then remember to go to their cart and order the product. Too many steps, too many places to get off Mr. Bezos’ Wild Ride of Commerce. The Dash Buttons were simple! Press the button, get the labeled product shipped to a preconfigured address. Each button was purchased (for $5, with a $5 coupon) with a particular brand affinity, then configured online to purchase a specific product when pressed. In the marketing materials, happy families put them on washing machines to buy Tide, or in a kitchen cabinet to buy paper towels. Pretty clever, it really is a Buy now with 1-Click button for the physical world.

There were two versions of the Dash button. Both have the same user interface and work in fundamentally the same way. They have a single button (the software can recognize a few click patterns), a single RGB LED (‘natch), and a microphone (no, it didn’t listen to you, but we’ll come back to this). They also had a WiFi radio. Version two (silently released in 2016) added Bluetooth and completely changed the electrical innards, though to no user facing effect.

In February 2019, Amazon stopped selling the Dash Buttons. Continue reading “The Amazon Dash Button: A Retrospective”

Teardown Of A 50 Year Old Modem

A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts.

The Livermore Data Systems Modem, where I found it. It cost me $20

The probability of knowing what an acoustically coupled modem looks like is inversely proportional to knowing what Fortnite is, so for anyone reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll spell it out. Before there was WiFi and Ethernet and cable modems and fiber everywhere, you connected to the Internet and BBSes via phone lines. A modem turns digital data, in this case a serial connection, into analog data or sound. Oh yeah, we had phone lines, too. The phone lines and the phones in your house were owned by AT&T. Yes, you rented a phone from the phone company.

90s kids might remember plugging in a US Robotics modem into your computer, then plugging an RJ-11 jack into the modem. When this wooden modem was built, that would have been illegal. Starting with the communications act of 1934, it was illegal to attach anything to the phone in your house. This changed in 1956 with Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States, which ruled you could mechanically attach something to a phone’s headset. (In Hush-A-Phone’s case, it was a small box that fit over a candlestick phone to give you more privacy.)

The right to attach something to AT&T’s equipment changed again in 1968 with Carterphone decision that allowed anyone to connect something electronically to AT&T’s network. This opened the door for plugging an RJ-11 phone jack directly into your computer, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the tariffs, specifications, and certifications were worked out. The acoustically coupled modem was the solution to sending data through the phone lines from 1956 until 1978. It was a hack of the legal system.

This leaves an ancient modem like the one sitting on my desk in an odd position in history. It was designed, marketed and sold before the Carterphone decision, and thus could not connect directly to AT&T’s network. It was engineered before many of the integrated chips we take for granted were rendered in silicon. The first version of this modem was introduced only a year or so after the Bell 103 modem, the first commercially available modem, and is an excellent example of what can be done with thirteen or so transistors. It’s time for the teardown, so let’s dig in.

Continue reading “Teardown Of A 50 Year Old Modem”

TRS-80 Model 100 Goes Cellular

There are a few old products that have rabid fan bases, and the TRS-80 Model 100 is one of those. Depending on your point of view it’s either a small laptop or a large organizer, but in 1983 it was the ultimate computer on the go. The $1100 version had a whopping 8K of memory and the LCD screen showed 8 lines of 40 characters in glorious monochrome. One cool feature was the built-in 300 baud phone modem, which [Trammell Hudson] wanted to try, but he doesn’t have a landline. He tried a VOiP phone, but it wouldn’t wedge into the acoustic couplers well enough. Then he decided to go cellular.

He had already hooked up an old ITT 500 series dial phone to an Adafruit Fona ceullar board. He even has Teensy software to decode the dial, drive the dial tone and otherwise make the phone work. This time he hooked a handset up through a headset jack.

Continue reading “TRS-80 Model 100 Goes Cellular”