Five years in the making, the device internally code-named “B238” was reportedly cancelled and revived several times as some employees expressed their concern with the fact that it won’t be able to do as many things as Amazon’s Echo.
HomePod was originally a side project cooked up 5 years ago by a group of Mac audio engineers who wanted to create a speaker that sounded better than the ones sold by the likes of Bose, JBL and Harman Kardon. Side projects aren’t uncommon at Apple, where employees are encouraged to follow their muse so long as their day jobs come first.
HomePod is now part of Apple’s accessories team which previously worked on AirPods and is run by Gary Geaves, who previously was R&D chief at audio company Bowers & Wilkins.
Several members of the HomePod team who were hired away from big-name speaker makers reportedly wanted to create a product for audiophiles so they focused on sound quality and an audio technology known as beam forming rather than on apps. The team also discussed adding a second woofer and mid-range speakers to boost the sound quality even further.
Apple reportedly tested a bunch of early HomePod prototypes in specially designed audio chambers and built three testing spaces designed to mimic real life: a college dorm, living room and open-plan studio apartment.
HomePod’s 6 mics were optimized to pick up commands over conversations, running washing machines and blasting televisions. The speaker grills were kid-proofed. Its feet were designed so the vibrations wouldn’t knock it off a shelf. Testers dropped the speaker from various heights and even threw it in a room with young kids.
“Designers also mulled producing the speaker in several colors but eventually decided on black and white,” wrote Gurman. “Over the years a closet filled up with prototypes, a kind of mini museum dedicated to HomePod.”
One of the early prototypes stood three feet tall while another looked like a flat panel with a mesh screen on the front. Yet another prototype was apparently about five times as tall as today’s HomePod and packed in dozens of speakers.
The Apple engineers jokingly accused one another of leaking details of their project to Amazon, then bought Echos so they could take them apart and see how they were put together. They quickly deemed the Echo’s sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker.
The report notes that Apple at one point considered selling the device under the Beats brand before ultimately abandoning the idea for reasons unknown. After working on HomePod for about two years in 2014, Apple’s engineers were apparently “blindsided” by the Echo devices.
As the online retailer has been iterating its Echo family of smart speakers on a regular basis, the devices became a hit with consumers who were impressed by Alexa’s ability to answer questions, order pizzas and turn lights on and off.
“Meanwhile, Apple dithered over its own speaker,” reads the story.
Apple’s smart speaker went through multiple permutations as executives “struggled to figure out how it would fit into the home and Apple’s ecosystem of products and services.” Gurman says Apple never saw HomePod as “anything more than an accessory,” like AirPods.
Indeed, HomePod is listed on Apple’s website as an accessory under the Music menu.
Yes, HomePod will have a limited set of features versus the thousands of Echo apps (or “skills” as they’re calling them), but that’s something Apple could easily address in software.
In fact, the upcoming iOS 11.2 software update will bring support for SiriKit for HomePod, allowing developers to extend HomePod’s natural voice interaction through custom features for domains like Messaging, Lists and Notes.
Apple’s reportedly told suppliers it expects to ship four million HomePods in 2018.