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Apple’s hardware VP on the HomePod’s return

After discontinuing the original HomePod in 2021, Apple’s premium smart speaker returns

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Image Credits: Brian Heater

Maybe nothing ever truly dies in Apple land. The Mac Pro went on an indefinite hiatus as the hardware design team regrouped and reengineered. MagSafe appeared to be gone forever, only to be reborn in altered form on MacBooks of recent vintage.

Various models and sizes across different lines have been phased out, only to return again. When the second gen HomePod goes on sale tomorrow, it won’t be entirely without precedent. But even so, this one feels different.

In March 2021, Apple announced that its premium smart speaker was going away. The statement was uncharacteristically conclusive from the company, even going so far as dropping the d-word. “We are discontinuing the original HomePod,” it told TechCrunch at the time, “it will continue to be available while supplies last through the Apple Online Store, Apple Retail Stores, and Apple Authorized Resellers.”

It wasn’t defeatist, exactly, as the company went on to praise the HomePod Mini in the same statement, but it was clear at first blush that this wasn’t the outcome Apple expected when it announced the original device in 2018. Five years ago, the smart speaker market was poised for tremendous growth, following a banner 2017 Q4. And why not? Suddenly the promise of home automation was within grasp for the average consumer. Gone were the days when bringing a little smarts into your house required a lot of money and several contractor hours.

Apple was a relatively late entrant to the space, in spite of having a seven-year-old smart assistant. Amazon’s first Echo hit the market at the end of 2014. The first Google Home device (now Nest) went up for sale almost exactly two years later. The two companies’ goals were nearly identical: use hardware as a conduit to get their smart assistant in as many homes as possible.

That meant, among other things, racing to deliver the cheapest devices possible. In the years that followed, it was common to see Amazon, Google and their partners giving away Echo Spots and Home Minis for free. It was a loss-leader strategy, a long-tail bet that content would eventually more than pay back the money lost to hardware.

While it was hardly the first to market, the HomePod offered something novel. Google had mined similar territory a year prior, with the $399 Home Max, but Apple had been waiting, watching and building a device that followed its customary approach to the market. Even more so than the Home Max, HomePod was a speaker first and foremost.

From a design perspective, at least, the move paid off. The first HomePod looked and sounded great. In his review, Matthew Panzarino certainly didn’t mince words when he declared it “easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever.” It was a big, definitive statement — the kind one rarely reads in reviews. But you would have been hard-pressed to make a compelling case to the contrary.

By August the year of the HomePod’s debut, analytics declared that just shy of one-third of U.S. consumers had a smart speaker in their home. Two years later, Amazon continued to dominate the category, owning around 70% of the market. Google came in second at a bit over 30%. HomePod, meanwhile, was lumped into a third category that also included the likes of Sonos and Harmon, comprising less than 20% of the market, combined.

The numbers were disappointing, if not entirely surprising. Apple’s no compromise approach meant effectively excluded true mainstream adoption. The $349 launch price (later lowered to $299) immediately ruled it out for a lot of consumers. So, too, did the fact that it required an iOS device for setup. Amazon and Google’s respective head starts also worked against the device’s market saturation. These are ecosystem plays, above all. If you’re already an Alexa or Google Home house, you probably aren’t going to introduce Siri into the picture.

That same year, Apple addressed a number of those complaints with the $99 HomePod Mini. It’s not the Echo Spot or Home Mini’s rock-bottom price, but it opened the line to a broader segment of the public that had gone unaddressed with the original offering. In hindsight, it’s not entirely surprising the HomePod was discontinued in 2021, but it still felt strange that the company was removing what had previously been the cornerstone of its smart home strategy.

Earlier this month, the company announced an about-face. HomePod was returning. The speaker looked nearly identical to the product announced in 2018, but Apple promised even better sound, coupled with improved smart home functionality. While the company won’t disclose how long it’s been working on this iteration of the product, a spokesperson confirmed with TechCrunch that the revival is due to customer demand, noting, “We really did hear from our customers this growing interest for more powerful and richer acoustics of a larger speaker.” In other words, this wasn’t part of some secret plan to bring the product back all along.

The “All-New HomePod” arrives in a different world than its predecessor. Amazon, for one, may have sold a hell of a lot of Echoes over the past nine years, but the longer-term gamble has thus far failed to pay off. Prior to the company making massive cuts to the Echo team, it was reported to be operating at a $5 billion a year revenue loss. Google’s revelations were less dramatic, but the Nest division was reportedly the subject of a hiring freeze, while home products were conspicuously absent from last year’s Pixel event.

“We deeply studied the learnings from the first HomePod and HomePod mini,” Matthew Costello, Apple’s vice president, Hardware Engineering and Operations, told TechCrunch, “and we introduced the new HomePod when it was able to achieve our broad range of experience goals.” Costello, who heads up the HomePod team, was formerly the COO of Beats, joining Apple when it acquired the headphone maker in 2014.

It’s a strange time to resurrect the product on the face of it. That’s not to say that Apple’s timing is bad, necessarily. With Amazon and Google having seemingly taken their eye off the ball in the smart speaker arena, there may be an opening for Apple’s offerings. Such distractions dovetail nicely for what could well prove a watershed moment for the space, with the ongoing roll out of the Matter standard.

The dirty little secret is that none of the smart home on-boarding experiences have been great up to now. Major players took a fragmented approach to the market, whether it was HomeKit or Works With Google/Alexa, many consumers no doubt brought home some shiny new smart home accessory, only to find out that it wasn’t compatible with their chosen ecosystem.

That, frankly, is a bad experience. At the end of 2019, however, the big players put aside their differences for a moment. Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung and Zigbee joined forces to create the Connectivity Standards Alliance, Matter’s parent organization.

“The IoT started reaching a point where it became obvious to have that reality of the billions of sensors and connected devices that we all know is possible,” Jon Harros, the CSA’s director of Certification and Testing Programs, told me in an interview at CES. “They all have a major slice of the pie. They’re all doing very well, but the size of the pie could grow orders of magnitude. You’re now not talking about shipping millions of products, you’re talking about shipping billions.”

The timing of the new HomePod’s arrival as Matter is beginning to ramp up is presumably not a coincidence. An Apple spokesperson tells TechCrunch it’s “really excited” about the new standard. “The new Matter smart home connectivity standard gives users more choice and interoperability to connect a wide variety of smart home accessories across different ecosystems,” says Costello. “With support for Thread, the new HomePod can serve as a border router and securely enable communications to Thread-based accessories located throughout the home.”

The new HomePod is nearly identical to its predecessor, and Apple appears to have taken the approach of not fixing things that aren’t broken. “Our teams really, really love this direction, in terms of the shape and the form,” says Costello. “And we were able to create a wonderful system within that structure.”

The illuminated Siri touch panel up top has an active area 6x that of its predecessor, though Apple opted not to go full smart display this time around. And while the cable is now detachable where it was once fixed, the company didn’t add, say, an auxiliary input — a long requested feature. “When we start these products, we consider everything,” explains Costello, adding that he’ll take note of the suggestion. Certainly, Apple has grown more directly responsive to user feedback than were in the past.

While the company has also begun offer Self-Service Repair options for certain iPhones and MacBooks in the face of looming right to repair legislation, there currently exists no such option for the HomePod. Asked whether opening the system up at home would effectively void its warranty, a representative for the company answered, simply, “we don’t recommend people open it.” It’s not a “no” exactly, but it reads like warning of sorts.

Asked whether the Mini will remain a focus following the HomePod gen 2’s arrive, a spokesperson told TechCrunch, “HomePod mini continues to be a focus for Apple, and plays a key role in the HomePod family.” While it doesn’t reveal numbers, the company says the entry level product has been “popular,” and keeping the $99 device as a key piece of the smart home strategy makes a lot of sense. While the new HomePod’s $299 price tag is $50 below where the original launched, it’s still cost prohibitive for many users. That’s doubly the case when you consider how much of its appeal is built around stereo pairing capabilities.

A number of new features built for the Mini were foundations to the new HomePod’s creation. Chief among them is Handoff, a clever feature that allows the user to “transfer” Apple Music songs between the speaker and an iPhone, using on-board technologies like Ultra Wideband. Also foundational to the feature is the move from A8 in the old version to S7, the same chip found on the Apple Watch Series 7.

While it’s great for ecosystem purposes, however, it does introduce some limitations. The most glaring of the bunch is the move back to Wi-Fi 5. Quoting my review from earlier this week:

The latest hardware products support Wi-Fi 6e. The iPhone 14 supports Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 7 is set to debut in 2024. Wi-Fi 4 debuted the year Barack Obama was elected to his first term. The 2018 HomePod 1 supported Wi-Fi 5, which debuted four years prior.

If I had to go out on a limb here, I would posit that ongoing supply chain constraints made it difficult to make such a big change to an existing chip.

“HomePod features Wi-Fi 4 connectivity that allows us to target exactly what works best in the entire system,” Costello tells TechCrunch, “making sure Siri requests are responsive, and ensuring a consistent experience for all you are listening to, controlling your smart home accessories and more — all while being energy efficient.”

Another thing that jumped out at launch is the product’s lack of backward compatibility with regard to stereo pairing. As it stands, each HomePod can only be paired with an exact match. After Apple discontinued the original product, it allowed its existing supply to sell out, making it difficult to purchase the first generation new (though there are some pre-owned devices or original products marked up by around $100). So, if you have a first-generation product, it’s tough to make it a stereo pair.

“When creating a stereo pair, it’s important that the audio characteristics match for an optimal, balanced experience,” says Costello of the lack of compatibility. “The new HomePod delivers immersive, room-filling sound users love — with even more detail, clarity and layers than the original HomePod — so we wanted the acoustical imaging to be as pure and consistent as possible from generation to generation. The principle of having audio characteristics match in a stereo pair applies to HomePod mini, the original HomePod and the new HomePod.”

While this device (as with any) has some shortcomings, it remains a terrific-sounding smart speaker, and a spate of improvement to its internals have continued to elevate it further. That includes updates to the woofer and tweeter arrays, which provide deeper bass and clearer highs. It’s undoubtedly a well-engineered machine, and the company attributes its slightly more compact design and lighter weight to “a more efficient and end to end optimized design.”

Apple is said to be readying a classical music app, and rumors of homeOS surface from time to time. The company’s upcoming mixed reality headset is rumored to be slated for later this year, and the work the company has been doing in Spatial Audio will, perhaps, pay dividends.

It seems clear that 2023 is going to be a consequential year for the smart home. It will be consequential for Apple, as well, and once again, the HomePod will play a starring role.

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