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Apple's AirPods: Blessed are the early adopters


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A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

There has been a lot written about Apple’s move away from the audio jack — before and after it actually happened. Many people are outraged a technology that has been around for so long and is still supported by so many hardware vendors was “taken” away so abruptly, so prematurely.

We heard similar outcries when Apple adopted a USB Type-C only port for its MacBook. And people were not too happy when Google moved to USB Type-C for its Nexus line. Sadly, as painful as it is, if we want change, we need to make the first step. But, when that happens, we are never happy.

Change sucks! And Apple knows that, and it does not take it lightly, nor does it think all of its iPhone installed base is ready for it. What I find particularly interesting about this saga is that Apple has actually been quite considerate in including an adapter so users can use other headsets with their iPhone if they wish. This is about making sure that consumers do not have to pay a high price for Apple’s desire to move ahead.

But there is a price: $40 for a third-party adapter that allows you charge your iPhone 7 and 7 Plus while continuing to use your headset. While the availability of such an adapter was one of my first questions to Apple, I came to realize as I thought through the different scenarios that I can count on the fingers of one hand when I actually found myself needing to do that. So while I might end up buying one of those adapters, it is more as a security blanket than an actual need.

Of course, if I do not want to have that problem at all, I could buy the new AirPods for $119 more than the EarPods adapter would cost. And the AirPods are really the story here.

A cornerstone of the device ecosystem experience

As with its EarPods, Apple designed and brought to market the AirPods under its own brand because they are going to be key to the user experience with the iPhone and other devices. If it were just a question of selling an accessory, Apple could have easily created a set of wireless headphones under the Beats brand and added them to the other new headsets introduced on stage.

But the AirPods are not just an accessory. They are an important tool to show users who are embedded in the ecosystem the power of owning multiple devices. Think about the call functionality already going over the Watch and the Mac. And now, think of the fact Apple took time on stage to tell us that when we connect our AirPods to the iPhone, they are automatically connected to our other devices through iCloud.

Now I can take a call from my Watch without looking like an angry Dick Tracy, or from my Mac without shouting at it. Think about listening to music from your Watch while you run, or getting directions while you walk through the city. After all, many wanted GPS so they could leave their phone at home, no?

Cut the cord and set Siri free

The choice of devices the AirPods empower is also an incredible opportunity for Siri to play a much more active and personal role, day to day. This, in turn, will increase our dependence on her (yes, I do personify Siri, the same as I do Alexa). AirPods could improve our experience, particularly in the home, not just with Apple TV but with other HomeKit-enabled devices. It will also make it easier in environments where there are different devices and users so my Siri will respond only to me; she will be truly my personal assistant.

I do not think what we have today is the end goal — there are still things that need to be worked on — but this first generation of AirPods clearly show what the future could look like. While a five-hour battery life for listening to music might not seem like enough to many, you do not need both pods to interact with Siri — which means you can potentially cover a full day of Siri interactions using the charge in the holder. Music lovers might not like the fact Siri stops the music so she can better hear your comments, but even this should be something that can be changed in future iterations.

Look at the Apple Watch to see the progression

The bottom line is that — in a very similar way to Apple Watch Series 1 — with AirPods, you are buying into the future while not quite knowing what the immediate benefits will be. Users will discover benefits as they go along, and will help Apple refine the experience in the process, exactly as it happened with Apple Watch Series 2.

One of the complaints I heard was about Apple’s misjudged list of priorities: Wireless headphones came before wireless charging. As much as I like the convenience of wireless charging, the reality is, whatever your device is using to charge — pad, pillow, stand — it still requires a wire into the wall. So, while it might look nicer, it does not actually change your behavior, unless I am missing something. This is why, at the end of the day, for a company that never does tech for tech’s sake, prioritizing wireless charging did not make sense.

The approach Apple took with the removal of the audio jack and the addition of the Lightning EarPods alongside the AirPods shows Apple’s appreciation of its user base that is now no longer made up of just early adopters. While early adopters will likely jump on the AirPods, the rest of the base will have the time to adjust to the idea without feeling they are missing out on what the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have to offer.

Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at@caro_milanesi.



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