Apple Inc. audio engineers had been working on an early version of the HomePod speaker for about two years in 2014 when they were blindsided by the Echo, a smart speaker from Amazon.com Inc. with a voice-activated assistant named Alexa.
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.
More than two years passed. In that time Amazon’s Echo became a hit with consumers impressed by Alexa’s ability to answer questions, order pizzas and turn lights on and off. Meanwhile, Apple dithered over its own speaker, according to people familiar with the situation. The project was cancelled and revived several times, they said, and the device went through multiple permutations (at one point it stood 3 feet tall) as executives struggled to figure out how it would fit into the home and Apple’s ecosystem of products and services.
In the end, the company plowed ahead, figuring that creating a speaker would give customers another reason to stay loyal. Yet despite having all the ingredients for a serious competitor to the Echo—including Siri and the App Store—Apple never saw the HomePod as anything more than an accessory, like the AirPods earphones.
As a result, when the $350 gadget debuts early next year
(Apple delayed the launch from December), the HomePod won’t be able to do many of the things the Echo can. Amazon offers thousands of “skills” (voice-activated apps) that let users do a range of things. The Google Home Mini, which debuted earlier this year, is similarly endowed. The HomePod will be mostly limited to playing tunes from Apple Music, controlling Apple-optimised smart home appliances and sending messages through an iPhone.
“This is a huge missed opportunity,” said one of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss an internal matter. Apple declined to comment.
The HomePod was originally a side project cooked up about five 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.
The engineers wanted a product that would pass muster with audiophiles. Several members of the impromptu team hailed from big-name speaker makers and dreamed of perfecting a much-anticipated technology called “beam forming.” It directs sound to specific places in a room, creating immersive 3-D audio.
While Apple engineers toiled away, Amazon unveiled the Echo.
Apple’s HomePod stays 3 years behind Amazon’s Echo