AirPods will turn out to be one of the more strategically important hardware products Apple has released this decade. However, you would never know it judging from the way Apple unveiled the device last week. I suspect that was intentional. While the press remains focused on the short-term debate surrounding the iPhone's lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack, few have realized that Apple just unveiled its second wearables platform.
Apple introduced AirPods as a $159 solution to a problem that many iPhone users never thought they had: wired headphones. By accelerating the transition away from wired headphones, Apple is convinced that the user experience found with mobile devices will be improved. While AirPods are designed to handle most of the tasks currently given to wired EarPods, a look inside shows that Apple aims to do much more with the device. Apple's new W1 chip, the company's first wireless chip, addresses traditional shortcomings attached with wireless headphones. However, when the W1 chip is combined with additional sensors, including voice accelerometers, AirPods become Apple's latest product that capitalizes off of Siri.
After spending some time with AirPods in the demo room at the Apple keynote, there were four items that stood out to me:
- Easy to use. The AirPods setup was so incredibly simple (just open the AirPods charging case), I figured I must have been missing a step or two. It is clear that Apple spent much time addressing the known shortcomings found with many of the current wireless headphones available in the market.
- Designed for Siri. AirPods are designed just as much for voice capture as they are for delivering sound. Even in the boisterous demo room, AirPods were able to capture my Siri command and then quickly provide the response from the nearby iPhone.
- The touch interface. A double tap on the outside of an AirPod activates Siri. It is easy to see how Apple will expand this touch interface in future hardware versions to activate or control additional actions.
- Siri in my ear is more intuitive than in my hand or on my wrist. Using AirPods to query Siri and then quickly receive a response is incredibly intuitive, more so than my typical use case of looking at my iPhone or Apple Watch display to see Siri's written response. In addition, by having my primary interface with Siri be a small wireless device in my ear, I also gain an increased level of privacy. We will eventually get to the point at which I will be able to whisper or even mumble and AirPods will capture my command and deliver a Siri response. This will make the behavior of talking across the room to my iPhone or Amazon Echo seem downright archaic.
There is also much intrigue found not just with the AirPods themselves, but also with the charging case. The AirPods case contains enough battery life for 24 hours of listening time while AirPods provide up to five hours of listening time on one charge. This means that I will be able to use the case for up to four to five quick recharges. (A 15 minute recharge will be enough for 3 hours of listening time). Apple ID appears to be telling us that AirPods are designed to be charged while not in use but if in a bind, an emergency recharge is possible. We see this same thought process when looking at the design given to the Apple Pencil and Magic Mouse 2.
A New Wearables Platform
AirPods are not just a pair of bluetooth headphones or an iPhone accessory. Instead, AirPods represent Apple's second wearables platform. When thinking of AirPods in this way, it becomes much easier to envision where Apple may bring the product category over time. Not only will Apple expand the functionality found with AirPods, which is obvious, but there is opportunity for Apple to introduce a range of AirPods models that share a design language.
Consider how far Apple has pushed its first wearables platform, Apple Watch, in just 16 months. The Apple Watch is already a $10 billion business. Apple now has five distinct Apple Watch models ranging in price from $269 to $1,499 and dozens of SKUs. While each model has the same design language (rectangular watch face and interchangeable bands), there are also key differences when it comes to features and functionality. In addition, Apple has been aggressive in building out the Watch ecosystem by releasing various Watch bands and other accessories.
Apple's First Wearables Platform (September 2016 - 16 Months after Launch)
I expect AirPods to follow a similar pattern as Apple Watch. Additional models will eventually be introduced to address a wider portion of the wireless headphone market. While there will be some commonality between models, such as containing basic health and fitness monitoring capabilities, there will also be models that will be able to handle more differentiated use cases for certain environments such as schools and the workplace or for specific activities like running. Apple included its W1 chip in a few models of wireless Beats by Dre headphones. This move, while unusual for a company like Apple, does suggest that Apple has the intention of eventually expanding the AirPods line to include a range of models.
While Apple's two wearables platforms are inherently different from each other based on how they are designed for different sensory inputs, the two are in fact complementary to each other. The Apple Watch is designed to take advantage of the wrist's superior line of sight. This explains the device's rectangular display, designed to show as much text and other consumable information as quickly and efficiently as possible. Meanwhile, AirPods are designed to capitalize on the very powerful notification capabilities found with the human ear.
Items that are currently given to Apple Watch, such as tap notifications, may end up making much more sense for a device like AirPods, while Siri responses such as location or sports scores make sometimes make sense to be shown on an Apple Watch display instead of simply through voice in the ear. Apple's two wearables platform may end up working hand-in-hand, or maybe I should say wrist-in-ear, to provide a seamless user experience based on the most personal tech gadgets that Apple has ever sold.
The product strategy behind AirPods is based on what I coined the "Apple Experience" era. (My article introducing the term can be read here.) Apple will move beyond the iPhone by offering users the ability to create custom Apple experiences involving various form factors and software platforms. Apple services will help to connect everything together.
There is a very straight-forward premise underlying the Apple Experience era: The iPhone will not be the hub of everyone's digital lives. This may seem counterintuitive considering that the iPhone has become the most valuable computer for hundreds of millions of users. However, it is this greater dependency on iPhone that opens the door for new, more personal products to flourish.
Just as our iPhone has become more powerful and capable over the years, the percentage of our daily tasks and responsibilities that we give to iPhone has been on the rise. The ongoing debate as to whether an iPad can handle all of the tasks given to a Mac ignores the fact that many have already positioned an iPhone as being able to handle many Mac tasks. We saw a few examples last week during Apple's keynote of how this trend is only going to intensify going forward. For example, the iPhone 7 Plus has a dual-camera system capable of capturing depth of field. The possibilities associated with that kind of technology could very well represent the next wave of smartphone innovation.
While this increased functionality will increase the iPhone's value to hundreds of millions of users, it sets in motion the scenario in which room is created for new personal technology devices to begin to handle some of the more simpler tasks currently given to iPhone. For example, instead of looking at our iPhone to see who sent that incoming email, we can quickly glance at the notification on our wrist saying we received a new email. Instead of looking at our iPhone to see if we are at the right location for lunch, we get a small notice from Siri in our ear that we need to walk another two blocks for lunch. It's not that the iPhone will become less valuable in these scenarios. Rather, the value found with more personal gadgets will increase.
By allowing consumers to pick and choose which products will handle their technology needs, we see the Apple Experience product strategy beginning to come to life. For some people, the iPhone will remain the primary hardware in their lives while others will find that Apple Watches and AirPods make much more sense for their lifestyle. We already see this evolutionary phenomenon materializing with the rise of wrist wearables. AirPods will usher in a new group of wearables that also begin to handle tasks formerly given to iPhones.
Writing Is on the Wall
Apple is officially positioning AirPods as the beginning of the end of wired headphones. I would go much further. AirPods are the latest clue that the post-iPhone era is approaching. The writing is on the wall. A pair of AirPods (or even just one AirPod in an ear) and an Apple Watch with cellular connectively will eventually be able to handle many of the most popular tasks currently given to an iPhone.
It will begin with simply leaving the iPhone at home while taking Apple Watch and AirPods on a run. Then it will expand to being able to leave the iPhone at home when running a quick errand. Soon, the iPhone will become the dedicated device for tasks like watching video and writing emails. Eventually, the iPhone will begin to be treated like an iPad or Mac, serving as the device we turn to for those times we need a more powerful device. All the while, more and more tasks are given to Apple Watch and AirPods.
Throughout this process, Apple services such as Siri, iMessage, and Apple Maps will play a big role in making this transition away from iPhone possible as the very nature of computing tasks are simplified. As third-party developers embrace Apple services in new ways, the way we interact with these services will also change.
Apple is learning from lessons experienced with the Apple Watch to approach AirPods in a much more modest way as seen with the way management discussed the product on stage last week. AirPods are being given a very simple directive today. It may be difficult to believe, but AirPods contain the potential to eventually become a more important product for Apple than even Apple Watch. Many possibilities are created by having Siri in our ear. AirPods are a very big deal.
Receive my analysis and perspective on Apple throughout the week via exclusive daily updates (2-3 stories a day, 10-12 stories a week). To sign up, visit the membership page.