Former Apple HomePod Audio Engineer Returns as Smart Speaker Software Chief
Apple has hired a former HomePod audio engineer as the new software lead for the smart speaker line, according to a Bloomberg report. Afrooz Family will take up the task of building up the HomePod’s place in the market, where it struggles to compete with Amazon and Google’s smart speaker products.
Family worked at Apple for four years on the audio aspect of the HomePod. He left in 2016 to co-found a new audio device company called Syng with Apple designer Christopher Stringer. Syng launched the Cell Alpha, a high-end $1,800 smart speaker with ‘triphonic audio,’ meaning sound coming from three directions. Investors have been impressed enough with the device to write Syng a $48.75 million check in an investment round last month despite its eye-popping price tag. Family is returning to Apple to guide what might be the start of a significant new initiative for Apple’s smart speakers.
Apple doesn’t even sell the HomePod Family initially worked on anymore, having discontinued the $350 smart speaker in March after three years of relatively low sales. Last year, the company took a different tack with a new, smaller and less expensive smart speaker called the HomePod Mini. This take on the HomePod came around the time Family’s new role opened. HomePod software’s former lead Jason Harrison took a new job at Airbnb last fall. Though not a game-changer for the industry, the $100 HomePod Mini has been selling well enough to survive for now.
Ahead of hiring Family, Apple started taking steps to better position the HomePod as part of the Apple TV world. The HomePod and Apple TV software teams merged a few months ago, with iTunes developer Jeff Robbin as the group leader. And last month’s HomePod 15 software update brought owners the option of making one or two HomePod Minis the default speakers for Apple TV 4K. Apple is rumored to be working on merging the hardware side of things as well, producing a single device that works as an Apple TV, HomePod, and FaceTime camera for video calls possibly for sale in 2023.
That strategy may sound familiar to those following the smart TV market. Both Google and Amazon have steadily moved toward smart home devices that can function as televisions, smart displays, and video conferencing equipment, relying on their respective voice assistants as the key to their usefulness. Google TV owners started being able to set up profiles connected to their Google account just last week, with each profile garnering personalized recommendations and access to their account from Google Assistant. Meanwhile, Amazon announced it would start manufacturing its own televisions designed around Alexa and Fire TV without the need to integrate with another brand’s platform. One of the new TVs comes with a far-field microphone that functions the same as an Echo smart display. Amazon upgraded Alexa’s content recommendation and conversation function simultaneously, just a month ahead of Google.