- Kif Leswing
- The “white ring” problem that affects Apple HomePods placed on certain kinds of wood furniture is an embarrassing snafu for a company that prides itself on attention to detail.
- Although the problem relates to the interaction between silicone and wood and does not appear to be Apple-specific, some industrial design experts that Business Insider spoke to were surprise that Apple didn’t catch the issue in quality assurance testing.
- Fixing the problem is probably not very costly, but could involve re-tooling the manufacturing equipment, which could take several weeks.
The “white ring” problem affecting Apple’s new HomePod speaker is an embarassing snafu for a company that prides itself on its design and quality bona fides, say several industrial design experts that Business Insider spoke to.
But the problem is likely not very costly or time consuming to fix, giving Apple a good chance to salvage the sales prospects of the $350 speaker and to limit any lasting damage to its reputation.
“I’m actually very surprised,” said Cesar Viramontes, a Senior Industrial Designer at Y Studios, a San Francisco based firm that has worked on everything from TV set top boxes to digital picture frames. Viramontes, who has worked on numerous speakers in the past, said it’s not an issue he’s encountered before.
Apple released the HomePod earlier this month, marking the company’s official entry into the nascent smart speaker market dominated by Amazon and Google.
But the buzz of the launch was quickly overshadowed by reports that the device leaves behind an unseemly, and not very easy to erase, white ring on certain types of furniture.
“They didn’t test the product enough”
It turns out that the silicone attached to the bottom of the HomePod reacts with oil-coated wood as a result of sound vibrations, leaving the distinct white footprint (yes, even if your HomePod is grey or black). Apple confirmed the problem, first spotted by Wirecutter, and explained that the mark could “improve over several days after the speaker is removed from the wood surface.” If it doesn’t, Apple advised HomePod owners to sand and re-varnish.
Apple reprises the "You're holding it wrong" playbook for HomePod ring-of-death issue: "We recommend placing your HomePod on a different surface." https://t.co/29jYS1lxEt
— Rafe Needleman (@Rafe) February 15, 2018
Subsequent reports found that the Sonos One speaker also suffered from a similar problem. But the fact that Apple, famous for a religious-like attention to detail in its products, didn’t catch the problem before releasing the HomePod struck some as a bad sign.
“They didn’t test the product enough and in the right variety of circumstances, especially considering that a wood surface is a very likely support for the product,” said Ignazio Moresco, a product design expert who has worked at frog design, Microsoft and Ericsson.
“They should have caught the issue if they followed a rigorous QA process,” he said, referring to the quality assurance process that hardware makers put new products through to ensure that they are consumer-ready.
Gregor Berkowitz, a product development consultant for various consumer electronics brands, theorized that the oversight may owe to Apple’s inexperience making stereos or speakers, which unlike laptops or iPhones, are stationary products.
The problem should be corrected in the next round of manufacturing
Manufacturers of speakers or other stationary products understand the complexities of silicone on wood: Oils leave wood porous, while varnish seals it shut, and a product that sits on a shelf needs to account for both environments.
“This is sitting on a bookshelf. Is it going to work? Or are there going to be problems? A traditional consumer product company or a speaker company or a traditional Hi-Fi company is going to worry about that and think about those problems and have experience with it,” Berkowitz said. “This shouldn’t be new for Apple but it is.”
That said, fixing the problem should not be very costly for Apple, some of the industrial designers that Business Insider spoke to said.
“It’s an issue, but I think it’s probably going to be one that’ll be corrected in the next round of manufacturing,” said Y Studios’ Viramontes. “I think it will be a minor issue, and people will probably forget about it in the next couple of months when it goes away.”
Apple may need to “re-tool” the manufacturing process since silicone is manufactured using a different process than the other kinds of elastomer,” said Berkowitz. If that’s necessary, the process could take anywhere from two weeks to six weeks, he noted.
One thing is certain though:
“I’m sure that there’s now some untreated, oil wood surfaces in someone’s test lab now,” said Berkowitz.