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Power

With the HomePod Mini, Apple is playing catch-up in the smart speaker space

The new device is priced like the Nest Audio and Amazon Echo, but it may not sound as good.

Apple HomePod Mini

Apple made some compromises to get the price down to just $99.

Image: Apple

Apple used its iPhone event Tuesday to introduce the HomePod Mini, a new $99 spherical smart speaker that is meant to close the gap with competing products from Amazon and Google. However, with limited support for third-party music services at launch and no way for developers to bring their services to the device, Apple is still playing catch-up in the smart speaker space.

Apple made some compromises to get the price down to just $99. Most notably: Unlike the original HomePod, the new device isn't adjusting the sound to its environment. This allowed the company to use just three mics, instead of the six that it put into the original $300 HomePod.

The HomePod Mini is instead monitoring the music it plays in real time, and tweaks playback on the fly. That's similar to the approach Google took with its new Nest Audio speaker, and it makes sense: With a smaller speaker, there is less bass and distortion to deal with.

Speaking of Google: People who have Nest speakers, or Amazon's Echo devices, will have recognized some of the other software features announced by Apple on Tuesday as well. For instance, the competition has long offered the type of intercom functionality provided by the HomePod. As IoT podcaster Stacey Higginbotham put it: "Apple has just copied everything Google Assistant does on its home devices and stole Amazon's form factor."

Still, that in itself is a notable shift for Apple. When the company first announced the HomePod in 2017, it put a big emphasis on sound quality and positioned Siri primarily as a way to control music. On Tuesday, execs actually called the HomePod Mini a smart speaker — a description that has largely been absent from the original HomePod marketing material.

Even with a smarter Siri, the HomePod Mini is still lacking some of the features offered by the competition:

  • No Spotify, at least for now. At launch, the Mini will only support Apple Music. Support for third-party music services is promised to follow in the coming months, starting with Pandora and Amazon Music. The omission of Spotify during Tuesday's presentation raised some eyebrows, though, and will be worth keeping an eye on. It does sound like the HomePod Mini and its larger sibling will eventually be open to all third-party music services. But given the public spat between the two companies over App Store fees, we'll have to wait and see if and when Spotify actually makes it to the device.
  • No third-party skills. Apple has put a lot of work into improving the Siri experience on HomePod, but the assistant still doesn't have the kind of third-party developer platform available for Alexa and the Google Assistant. This means that consumers will be largely confined to the functionality offered by Apple, and that developers will instead embrace competing devices for voice-first services.
  • Just a single driver. The original HomePod wasn't much of a commercial success, but people who bought it often praised its sound quality. For the HomePod Mini, Apple reduced the audio hardware down to a single driver, combined with passive radiators for sound propagation. The Nest Audio, on the other hand, combines a woofer and a tweeter, and the new Amazon Echo has a woofer and two tweeters. The big question here is: Will the $99 HomePod Mini sound as good as other smart speakers in its price category, or will its sound be closer to that of the $50 Nest Mini or Echo Dot?

The HomePod Mini will start shipping in mid-November, and we probably won't know much about its commercial success until Apple reports financials for its holiday quarter sometime in early 2021. However, investors in smart speaker maker Sonos apparently didn't think the device was much of a match for the competition: After briefly cratering during the Apple event, Sonos' stock price was up 5% following the HomePod Mini announcement.

This story will appear in Thursday's edition of our entertainment newsletter, Next Up. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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