Apple’s Headphone Transition Marries Pragmatism and Vision

Today’s Apple event was notable for the fact that so much of what was to be announced had leaked ahead of time. On paper, that left very few surprises for the event itself, but of course what the supply chain leaks can never supply are the reasoning and narrative around new product announcements. And so during today’s event in San Francisco, it’s the storytelling around the changes that I was most curious about, and nowhere more so than around the death of the 3.5mm audio jack.

In the end, the way Apple is handling this transition is a mixture of pragmatism and vision. Normally, you’d want the vision first and the details second, but I think Apple made the right call here in getting the practicalities out of the way first.

Pragmatism first

The biggest risk with the elimination of the headphone jack was that for the first time a new iPhone would feel like a downgrade rather than an upgrade. The minimum bar Apple therefore had to clear here was to achieve feature parity between previous iPhones and the iPhone 7. As a practical matter, that meant giving people an option in the box that matched the functionality of what had previously come in the box, and that meant providing both Lightning EarPods and a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter.

Jason Snell joked recently that…

it’ll cost $19 if Apple’s sort of sorry, $29 if it’s not sorry, and if it’s free in the box then Apple’s really afraid of consumer backlash.

Of course, in the end, the adapter is free in the box, but that’s a sign of how much Apple wants (needs) this transition to go smoothly. It’s a transition driven by a vision, but it’s a long-term vision and in the short term Apple doesn’t want to lose any customers over it.

Vision second

So what is the vision here? Both Phil Schiller (in person) and Jony Ive (in disembodied voiceover) helped articulate it at the event. Here’s Schiller:

When you have a vision of how the audio experience can be, you want to get there as fast as you can and make it as great as it can be. And we do have a vision for how audio should work on mobile devices. And that takes us to our next feature: Wireless… it makes no sense to tether ourselves with cables to our mobile devices. But until someone takes on these challenges, that’s what we do. Our team at Apple has worked so hard to create something new that delivers on the opportunity of how good a wireless experience can be. That is why today we are so excited to show you a new product from Apple called Apple AirPods.

Ive encapsulates it even more succinctly:

We believe in a wireless future. A future where all of your devices intuitively connect.

If the iPad Pro is “the clearest expression of [Apple’s] vision of the future of personal computing”, then AirPods are the clearest expression of Apple’s vision of the future of audio on mobile devices. And the way AirPods pair to an iPhone is the best illustration of this future — here’s a tweet I posted with a short demo video from the hands-on area at the Apple event:

As you can see from the number of retweets and likes, that tweet struck a nerve. The pairing UX here is so much better than any Bluetooth pairing experience any of us have ever had before, and is the perfect instantiation of Ive’s comment about a future where all of your devices intuitively connect. It’s also a uniquely Apple experience, marrying hardware and software (and a proprietary wireless protocol) seamlessly in a way that creates a tightly integrated experience. Yes, it breaks the link with standards, but that’s classic Apple too, and it still leaves the door open to standard Bluetooth accessories connecting to the iPhone.

The vision is expensive — for now

The big problem with the vision? The $159 price tag. I’ve said all along that I was hugely skeptical that Apple would ship wireless EarPods in the box, and the biggest reason was that doing wireless right is enormously more expensive than doing wired right. Moreover, if Apple were trying to push a vision of wireless, they’d want to create something that wasn’t just good enough but truly outstanding, and that was never going to be possible at anything like the same margins as bundling EarPods that retail for $29.

In the end, of course, that’s turned out to be right — $29 Lightning EarPods are in the box along with an adapter that costs $9 when purchased separately, but the AirPods are $120 more than their Lightning predecessors. AirPods and wireless may be a vision of the future, but in the here and now they’re a little on the pricey side. This is where the pragmatism comes in — Apple had to use Lightning as a stopgap until such a time as the wireless future comes down significantly in price.

For those that want the future today (or in October, at any rate), there are AirPods and a range of W1-compatible Beats accessories ranging from $149 to $299. For the rest of us there are third party standard Bluetooth options and the Lightning EarPods. But I’m happy to bet that a couple of years down the line the price of headphones and earbuds using the W1 chip comes down signficantly to the point where the Lightning option is no longer necessary.

  • Hosni

    Only experience, not an engineer’s dream, will determine whether the W1 processor provides better results plus longer battery life. Apple exceeded the industry standard last year, however, with Apple Pencil.

    I don’t expect that Jony Ive would be making bold statements about wireless being the future of Apple unless AirPod represents a technology breakthrough.