Off Brand

How My Doorbell Betrayed Me

Amazon’s Ring kicked off a dark new era of shapeshifting products

Rob Walker
Marker
Published in
5 min readJan 28, 2020

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Illustration: Fran Caballero

AA little over four years ago, my wife and I moved into a new house (well, new to us; it’s more than a hundred years old but was recently refurbished) with no doorbell. Right around that time I read a post on BoingBoing about a cool-sounding WiFi-connected video doorbell called Ring. I work at home but I can’t always run to the door, so I was attracted to an intercom-like feature that would let me use my phone to tell, say, a delivery guy to just leave the package behind the gate. Although it cost $200, I could easily install it myself. So we bought one. It seemed like a nifty gizmo.

Today, of course, the Ring has, shall we say, a more complicated reputation. For a while, it was a beloved startup story: Back in 2013, founder Jamie Simonoff was turned down when he pitched Shark Tank on what he was calling the DoorBot; five years later, he sold the company to Amazon for more than $1 billion.

Welcome to the era of the stealthy shapeshifter product: The object itself might not change, but software updates can completely transform it.

But since then, this charming entrepreneurial tale has become a punching bag for tech press. Late last year a wave of reports emerged that pointed out security flaws that apparently exposed thousands of customers’ personal data. (The company claimed the problem was users recycling their passwords.) Our sister publication OneZero, among others, has argued that Ring cameras and the brand’s related Neighbors app are essentially crowdsourcing the surveillance state, whipping up creepy (and at times racist) paranoia in the guise of civics and safety, and causing “societal problems.” Ring has also been criticized for a too-cozy relationship with law enforcement. In December, the influential gadget-shopping site Wirecutter made the dramatic step of rescinding its endorsement of the product.

Welcome to the era of the stealthy shapeshifter product: The object itself might not change, being made of atoms and all, but software updates can completely transform a product’s functionality and its very meaning.

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