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Microsoft gambles on ‘nice guy’ strategy to close Activision megadeal

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Early this month, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, met with Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, to push for regulatory approval of Microsoft’s $69 billion acquisition of the video game company Activision Blizzard.

Smith’s gambit — which included offering to keep Activision’s blockbuster game Call of Duty widely available to satisfy competitive concerns — failed. A day after their meeting, Khan’s agency sued to prevent the blockbuster deal.

But in an interview this week, Smith was sanguine. “She did not take me up on my offer, but when I said give peace a chance, she smiled at least a little,” he said of Khan. “So any time somebody can end a meeting by smiling even a little, there’s always a little hope that we can sit down together in the future.”

Smith’s peacemaking comments reflect how Microsoft intends to approach the next phase of its deal for Activision. Far from giving up on the acquisition, he said, the company intends to gamble that its “nice guy” strategy could still work.

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In one plan, Microsoft hopes to win over regulators in Europe, people familiar with the approach said. European approval of the Activision deal could force U.S. officials to reach a settlement allowing for the acquisition to move forward or for a faster, more favorable court to hear the case, the people said.

Microsoft filed its response to the FTC lawsuit Thursday, arguing that the deal would expand access for gamers.

“Giving consumers high-quality content in more ways and at lower prices is what the antitrust laws are supposed to promote, not prevent,” the filing said.

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The FTC has said the deal should be stopped because it would harm consumers. It said Microsoft, which makes the Xbox console, could use Call of Duty and other popular Activision titles to lure gamers from rivals, especially Sony, which makes the PlayStation console.

Microsoft’s seemingly conciliatory approach is part of a nearly complete cultural transformation by the company since the 1990s, when it was known as the “Evil Empire” because of its strong-arm tactics to block out competitors. But under Satya Nadella, who became CEO in 2014, and Smith, who is also Microsoft’s top lawyer, the company has bent over backward in recent years to show it has grown up.

Pushing the Activision deal through has implications for more than just Microsoft. The FTC lawsuit is a landmark in a new era of government scrutiny of the biggest tech companies. Khan has staked an aggressive trustbusting agenda on the case, which legal experts said might be difficult to win. If Microsoft cannot get the deal approved, other tech behemoths will be less likely to be able to force a megadeal through.
“They will fight it,” said Sid Parakh, a portfolio manager at Becker Capital, which invests in Microsoft. “It’s a bit more above and beyond this deal. It’s also a statement to the FTC.”

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With Microsoft sitting on more than $100 billion to spend, he added, “they don’t want to back down now and then have every acquisition shot down.”
The acquisition of Activision must close by mid-July or Microsoft must pay as much as $3 billion in a breakup fee. Many hurdles remain, including approval from other global regulators, notably in Britain and in the European Union. If Microsoft can reach a formal settlement with them, it would leave the FTC at a critical juncture.

The FTC sued Microsoft in administrative court, which does not have the power to stop the deal from closing while the case is pending. If other regulators approved the deal, the FTC would need to decide whether to file an injunction against the acquisition in federal court to stop it. The injunction process could move quickly, potentially handing Microsoft a swift legal victory.

“There is no sensible, legitimate reason for our transaction to be prevented from closing,” the CEO of Activision, Bobby Kotick, said in a statement Wednesday. “We believe we will prevail on the merits of the case.”

The FTC declined to comment on Microsoft’s strategy or Smith’s conversation with Khan. Holly Vedova, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, said the agency is always willing to consider proposals from companies looking to settle antitrust concerns.

Microsoft is trying to strike a balance between, on the one hand, seeming open to a settlement and, on the other, preparing to destroy the FTC’s case in court. It has hired Beth Wilkinson, who prosecuted the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case before becoming one of the United States’ premier corporate litigators, to argue on its behalf before the FTC in-house court.

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Smith said he was optimistic that the case could avoid a messy trial, in part because of Microsoft’s previous experiences with antitrust enforcement.

In the 1990s, the company was known for its scorched-earth business tactics, bundling software products together to edge out competitors. In 1992, as regulators investigated the company, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates dismissed the scrutiny, saying, “The worst that could come of this is that I could fall down on the steps of the FTC, hit my head and kill myself.”

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Two years later, Microsoft agreed to a federal consent degree allowing personal computer makers more freedom to install programs from other companies. It staved off being broken up after a 1998 antitrust trial, and finally settled with the George W. Bush administration in 2001.

“The trial forced Microsoft to grow up, particularly in terms of its relationships with regulators and institutions beyond the tech industry,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who researches the history of tech companies.

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In 2001, Smith walked into interviews to be Microsoft’s top lawyer with a message: It was time to make peace with regulators and competitors. He got the job. Over the next several years, he reached legal settlements over competition concerns with governments around the world and other industry players.

It was not always smooth sailing. Negotiations between the company and Sun Microsystems, a server company that made the popular Java programming language, fell apart and took a year to get back on track. In 2004, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO at the time, was on a plane to Brussels to announce a deal with the European Commission when Smith got news that the commission instead was going to sue Microsoft for unfair competition. It took five years to secure a deal.

Since Nadella took over, Microsoft has embraced an even more open stance. His first acquisition was the studio that makes Minecraft, a game in which children learn and socialize in an expansive virtual world. He also spent $7.5 billion to buy GitHub, a software platform that supports open-source code.

Microsoft is now the world’s second-most valuable public company, largely driven by its strong cloud computing offerings. The enterprise business at the heart of its growth generally attracts less government attention than social media or other consumer-facing ventures.

Globally, Smith has presented Microsoft as a friendly giant willing to work with skeptical lawmakers. He has proposed middle-ground rules on contentious issues such as app stores and supported bipartisan interests such as the expansion of broadband.

Smith maintains powerful relationships in Washington. A bundler for President Joe Biden’s campaign, he attended a White House state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron just days before the FTC sued to block the Activision deal.

After the deal was announced in January, Microsoft went to great lengths to soothe the fears of regulators. Smith and Nadella traveled to Washington in February to promote the deal’s benefits. The company also made peace with an agitating labor union, which in turn lobbied the FTC on the deal. And it promised Sony that it would keep Call of Duty on PlayStation for years, and signed a deal to put the game on Nintendo’s Switch.

Smith said that “things moved quickly” in the final weeks before Microsoft was sued. When FTC staff met with Microsoft’s team, it became clear that the agency had serious concerns, he said.

“Our team asked, ‘Could we discuss a settlement proposal?’ And the staff said, ‘Not with us,’” he said. Later discussions with the leadership of the agency’s antitrust bureau failed to bear fruit, he added.

On Dec. 6, Microsoft drafted a formal settlement proposal for the agency. Smith declined to say exactly what it contained but said it addressed “all the issues relating to Call of Duty,” referring to fears that Microsoft could pull the title from rival consoles. Smith spoke to each of the agency’s four commissioners, virtually, for an hour the next day.

A day after that, the FTC commissioners voted 3-1 to sue.

But Smith said he refused to think of the situation as an us-versus-them situation.

“I will always start by asking myself, could I have done more?” he said. “What I do know is that January brings a new year.”

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New HomePod Reviews Offer Hands-On Look at Sound Quality, Siri, and More – MacRumors

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Apple’s second-generation HomePod will start arriving to customers and launch in stores this Friday. Ahead of time, the first reviews of the smart speaker have been shared by select media publications and YouTube channels.


Priced at $299, the new HomePod features a virtually identical design as the full-size HomePod that Apple discontinued in March 2021, but with two fewer tweeters and microphones. The Siri-powered speaker is also equipped with a four-inch high-excursion woofer, an S7 chip for computational audio, and a U1 chip for handing off music from an iPhone. The speaker supports Matter for smart home accessories and Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos.

A new sensor in the HomePod can measure temperature and humidity in indoor environments, and this feature was also enabled on the existing HomePod mini with a recent software update. Sound Recognition will also be coming to the new HomePod with a software update this spring, allowing the speaker to listen for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and send a notification to the user’s iPhone if a sound is identified.

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The new HomePod can be pre-ordered on Apple’s online store, with white and midnight color options available. In-store availability and deliveries to customers will begin Friday, February 3 in the United States, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK, and 11 other countries and regions.

Written Reviews

The Verge‘s Chris Welch said sound quality is very similar to the original HomePod:

After several days of listening to the new HomePod (both solo and in a stereo pair), I still think its sound signature remains true to the original HomePod. If you were a fan of that speaker, you’ll be satisfied with the second-gen version. Sure, you can hear subtle differences in how music is rendered when comparing both generations side by side with the same track. The newer HomePod might bring out a guitar solo with slightly more emphasis than the original. But the central traits are the same.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Nicole Nguyen also said the new HomePod sounds the same as the original:

The updated HomePod looks a lot like its discontinued predecessor—and sounds similar, too. I tested the new HomePod, as a single unit and grouped as a stereo pair, in a room that’s roughly 370 square feet. For most tracks, keeping the volume at 30% was enough to fill the space.

If you look at spec sheets comparing the old and new HomePods, you might scratch your head. The new one has a fast processor but fewer built-in microphones and speakers, and supports an older Wi-Fi standard. But in person, the new HomePod sounds and performs the same as the original.

Pocket-lint‘s Britta O’Boyle was impressed with the new HomePod’s sound quality too:

In terms of hardware, there are five tweeters, a “high-excursion woofer” capable of moving an impressive 20mm, and a four-microphone array. It’s a slightly different setup to the original HomePod – that had seven tweeters for starters – but the performance is equally excellent. Make no mistake, the HomePod (2nd generation) sounds fantastic.

In the midrange, you get vocals that are detailed, crisp and crystal clear, while at the lower end, the HomePod packs in plenty of bass. It’s lovely and deep for its size, while still offering expression and punch. It’s not as bassy as the Sonos Five – which is a bigger and more expensive speaker – and HomePod is arguably a little more muddled in the mid-range when playing tracks like Skrillex’s Rumble compared to the Five, but it is still very impressive overall – and that is a pretty tricky track to keep up with anyway. You can reduce the bass in the Home app, though we didn’t find this necessary.

Engadget‘s Billy Steele said that while Siri had several shortcomings when the original HomePod was released in 2018, the voice assistant has improved over the years. He also said the new HomePod’s two fewer microphones compared to the original did not impact Siri’s ability to detect his voice — even in a noisy room:

When we reviewed the original HomePod in 2018, one of our biggest gripes was with Siri’s limited abilities. Sure the speaker sounded good, but the lack of polish with the voice assistant made it seem like a work in progress. Apple has done a lot to improve Siri over the last five years, so a lot of those issues with the original have been fixed.

First, the HomePod, like Siri on your iPhone, is capable of recognizing multiple users. Personal Requests can allow it to peek at your Calendar, Notes, Reminders, Messages, Find My and more when you ask. Plus, HomePod can give each member of your family (up to six people) their unique responses from certain iPhone apps. What’s more, Siri can create recurring home automations without you having to pick up your phone and swipe over to the appropriate app.

Even with fewer microphones to pick up your voice, the new HomePod doesn’t suffer any performance setbacks. It’s just as capable as ever at picking out your voice even in a noisy room.

MobileSyrup‘s Dean Daley was impressed with Spatial Audio on the new HomePod:

A fantastic song to test out spatial audio is also one of my favourite tracks for karaoke, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. It sounds decent at first, but after the “I see a little silhouette of a man” section of the song, the 2nd-Gen HomePod takes it to a whole other level, perfectly utilizing Dolby Atmos’ surround sound and spatial audio with harmonies and melodies to create an epic concert in the entertainment space. This was definitely my favourite song I tested out, and one I showed to several friends.

TheStreet‘s Jacob Krol touched on the new HomePod’s larger backlit touch surface:

The most significant design change lives up top and involves the screen. While there isn’t really new information being shown and the dream of a HomePod with a true display contains to be just that a dream, the top surface is larger. It gives one more control with tapping to play or pause among other controls and it can glow brighter, and larger in different colors.

Rather than having the volume controls appear after a touch like on the original HomePod, the “+” and “-” are now etched into this backlit touch surface which makes it easier to adjust the volume at a moment’s notice. When playing back music, the HomePod’s top will glow in colors that resemble the album artwork of what you’re listening to and when communicating with Siri it will glow with all of the colors you’d expect.

TechCrunch‘s Brian Heater tested audio handoff on the new HomePod:

Start a song with Apple Music on your iPhone, hold it near the HomePod and it will start playing there, accompanied by a satisfying haptic fist bump. Move the phone near the speaker again and you can transfer it back. I really like this feature. It’s a good example of how nicely hardware can play together if you make your own devices, software and chips. It’s also surprisingly receptive. In fact, I found myself having to disable it while the HomePods are on my desk, otherwise it will accidentally trigger when I’m using the iPhone two feet from the speakers.

Video Reviews and Unboxings

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Carbon Hunters Episode 4: How GHGSat tracks methane from space – Corporate Knights Magazine

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Early last year, a microwave-oven-sized satellite hurtling along at more than seven kilometres per second detected a massive methane leak from a coal mine in southwest Siberia. The owner of that satellite was GHGSat, a Montreal-based company that works at the intersection of space and climate change. While carbon dioxide gets most of the attention when it comes to greenhouse gases, GHGSat focuses on methane – an extremely potent gas that has been responsible for an estimated 30% of the world’s warming to date. 

This week, Diana Fox Carney speaks to Stephane Germain, the CEO of GHGSat, about his childhood dreams of space and the challenges of scaling up as a Canadian cleantech company. “It was a wonderful place to start our business. Where it becomes a challenge is for growth capital [and] for really scaling to a global basis, Canada frankly is a bit of a backwater,” he says. Fox Carney also talked with Clea Kolster, the head of science and a partner at Lowercarbon Capital, about how GHGSat fits into the larger cleantech picture 

Listen and subscribe at Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Find earlier episodes here, here and here

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New Bold Unplugged features repositioned internal shock and remotely adjustable spring curve – BikeRadar

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Unplugged enduro bikes see changes to internal shock and new Syncros components

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The new Bold Cycles Unplugged features 160mm of rear travel controlled by a redesign of the Swiss brand’s signature internal suspension technology, moving the shock to a horizontal position.

The new enduro bike will be available in two build options featuring a 170mm front fork, with the frameset available separately.

The Unplugged Ultimate sits at the top of the tree and is priced at €10,999, with the Unplugged Pro positioned below it at €8,999, while the frameset will cost €5,999.

Both bikes feature an array of Syncros components, including the one-piece Hixon iC carbon handlebars, adding to the bike’s integrated styling.

The Hixon iC features an integrated stem and internal cable routing.
Bold Cycles

Bold says now the internal rear shock sits horizontally in the front triangle as opposed to vertically, it makes the centre of gravity even lower than the previous model.

The bike is compatible with both mullet and 29er configurations.

Hidden shocks

The internal shock now lies horizontally, whereas it had previously sat upright near the seat tube.
Bold Cycles

In keeping with Bold’s existing bikes, the new Unplugged frame features an internally mounted shock.

The brand says this stiffens the frame and lowers the centre of gravity, all while protecting the shock from the elements.

The lower centre of gravity gives the bike superior handling, according to Bold.

Bold says protecting the shock, which is a Fox Float X Nude, from water and dirt keeps its seals safe, improving performance while also extending its service intervals.

Positioning the shock so low is said to make the Unplugged compatible with dropper posts with up to 200mm of drop in sizes M to XL.

The down tube protector removes easily to access the shock and the storage compartment.
Bold Cycles

The shock is accessed through the removable down tube protector, which also houses a multi-tool. It also accommodates what Bold calls a ‘Save The Day Kit’, which features a mini pump, tyre levers and a spare tube.

Bold also includes its TracLoc technology. This enables you to change the compression damping and the spring curve from a remote switch on the handlebar.

The TracLoc system is operated by three levers on the handlebar, enabling you to alter the damping and spring curve.
Bold Cycles

A Traction mode reduces the suspension travel and stiffens the shock, and a full lockout should mean the Unplugged is efficient on the way back up the hill.

The technology is similar to that on Scott’s Genius trail bikes, also featuring an external indicator for setting sag levels and for seeing how much travel is being used.

The shock attaches directly to the linkage, making it compact. Bold says using a virtual pivot linkage improves the suspension feel and braking response.

Like many other enduro bikes on the market, the new Unplugged features a flip chip. This enables you to change the bottom bracket height by +/-5mm.

Rotating the headset cups gives you 1 degree of variability to the head tube angle.
Bold Cycles

Bold says in the bike’s slackest setting, the head angle is 64.5 degrees, although this can be made 1 degree steeper by rotating the headset cups 180 degrees.

Bold Unplugged spec and price

Bold Unplugged Ultimate

The Bold Unplugged can run as either a 29er or a Mullet.
  • Fork: Ohlins M.2 Air 170mm
  • Shock: Fox Float X Nude
  • Drivetrain: SRAM X01 Eagle AXS
  • Brakes: ​​Shimano XTR M9120
  • Wheels: Syncros Revelstoke 1.5
  • Tyres: Maxxis Minion DHF EXO (f), Maxxis Minion DHF (r)
  • Price: €10,999

Bold Unplugged Pro

Lower bottle mounts aid in getting the centre of gravity as low as possible.
Bold Cycles
  • Fork: Fox 38 Float Performance 170mm
  • Shock: Fox Float X Nude
  • Drivetrain: SRAM GX Eagle AXS
  • Brakes: ​​Shimano SLX M7120
  • Wheels: Syncros Revelstoke 2
  • Tyres: Maxxis Minion DHF EXO (f), Maxxis Minion DHF (r)
  • Price: €8,999

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