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Apple hires new HomePod software head to take on Amazon Echo

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Jason Harrison, who had overseen HomePod software, left Apple last year for Airbnb.

Apple is looking to better challenge Amazon Echo range of smart speakers and Google's Nest range of smart speakers.

Apple Inc. has hired a new engineer to lead software efforts for its HomePod smart speaker, aiming to turn the product into a bigger hit. 

The iPhone maker is enlisting Afrooz Family to lead the work, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Family worked at Apple from 2012 to 2016 before leaving to co-found audio startup Syng with former Apple industrial designer Christopher Stringer. Family left the startup earlier this year after helping develop the company’s product, the Cell Alpha.

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Apple is looking to better challenge smart speakers from Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Amazon’s Echo device, equipped with the Alexa voice assistant, currently dominates the industry. Users rely on the product to do things like play music, answer questions and set alarms. 

A representative of Cupertino, California-based Apple declined to comment.

Jason Harrison, who had overseen HomePod software, left Apple last year for Airbnb Inc. The original HomePod, which debuted at $349 in 2018, sold poorly and was discontinued earlier this year. Last fall, Apple revisited the concept with the $99 HomePod mini.

That device hasn’t become a blockbuster for Apple, but it has helped improve the company’s overall speaker sales. Still, it hasn’t made major inroads against the Amazon and Google devices, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Syng has had its own struggles. The startup developed its speaker as a high-end alternative to the HomePod, coming in at $1,800. It provides what the startup calls “triphonic sound” -- audio that comes from three different directions. But the device was a challenge to develop and manufacture, and its price makes it more of a niche product.  

Family has plenty of experience with smart speakers. Prior to Syng, he was an audio engineer at Apple and worked on the original HomePod. 

Apple typically updates the HomePod’s software on an annual basis, alongside its major iPhone and iPad software updates. Last month, the tech giant updated the HomePod software with improved Apple TV integration. The company also shook up the product’s management several months ago, when it combined the HomePod and Apple TV software teams into a single group reporting to iTunes creator Jeff Robbin. 

Eventually, Apple plans to merge its HomePod and Apple TV hardware. The company is working on a combined Apple TV, HomePod and FaceTime camera device for debut as early as 2023, Bloomberg News has reported. 

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