Will AirPods spark the next technology wave? How ‘personal audio computing’ could reshape the industry

Note: This post originally appeared on GeekWire on April 27, 2019

Me, with my AirPods in, like always. (David Zager Photo)

Phone, keys, wallet. Oh, and AirPods.

It’s happened to me, and I bet it’s happened to you too. The trio of daily accessories I stuff into my pockets has become a quartet.

What began as simply headphones without the cord, AirPods have now become more essential for my daily life than their corded predecessors ever were. I feel naked without them. In fact, I recently lost a pair in an airplane mishap, and was struck by how much I missed them in the week between my instant re-order and their arrival.

As I think about the other technological member of this pocket-dwelling quartet, there’s a nagging parallel. The smartphone started as a better phone, and ultimately became the basis of a new, era-defining wave of computing. Could AirPods be the same? Could they be Apple’s dark horse strategy to own the future of technology, masquerading simply as “better headphones?” After all, AirPods have sold faster than almost any other Apple product in their first two years, including the iPhone and the Apple Watch (estimates are over 40 million). And Apple is already gearing up to launch new models.

The Rise of AirPods

Phone, keys, wallet … AirPods. (Ben Gilbert Photo)

What makes these dorky, buttonless, ear-clinging electric toothbrush heads so attractive to consumers? How did we go from “they look stupid” to a status symbol in two years?

Upon searching my feelings, my answer feels so obvious it’s almost boring: they make it just a little bit easier to do stuff. But a lot of stuff. Of course there’s making phone calls, listening to podcasts, and creating reminders. But there’s also the odd and the specific: like leaving one AirPod in for an hour while on hold, or putting them in while falling asleep so not to disturb a partner, or listening to a whole audiobook on a long bike ride where a cord would be a non-starter.

Extreme utility normalizes ridiculousness.

The AirPods’ automagical connection to the iPhone, lack of wires, clever battery case, and wonderful pocketability are all tiny innovations that seem to compound, creating a wildly differentiated product. At any given time, it is now much more likely that there is a speaker and a microphone in — or close to — your ear.

It now feels exhausting to take a phone call by holding my phone up to my head for longer than 60 seconds. And strangely, walking for more than five minutes without listening to a podcast, music, or audiobook feels insufferable.

In fact, the very reduction of friction brought by the smartphone that caused us all to become visually addicted to our phones may now be happening audibly with AirPods. I notice that I engage in “gap-filling” behavior through my ears as well as my eyes. The 30-second Twitter glance in the checkout line four years ago is 2019’s ten-minute podcast segment in my Uber ride. Even while our hands are busy, we can frictionlessly turn to a device that speaks to us (privately) through our ears to feed the constant thirst for entertainment and interaction.

So does all of this make AirPods the next wave of computing?

What makes a wave?

(Apple Photo)

The personal computer, the internet, and the smartphone. Each technology ushered in an era of computing that enabled innovators to create over a trillion dollars of value.

What makes these technologies so special? Why these big three, and not other technologies over the years, like tablets, smartwatches, or augmented reality glasses such as Google Glass?

There are three primary factors that are required in order to become a breakthrough computing platform.

1. A Massive Reduction in Friction

Each of these technologies tremendously reduced the necessary friction to accomplish a task. With the PC, we could recalculate a spreadsheet by changing one number instead of taking the hours to do it with paper, pencil, and a calculator. With the internet, we suddenly had access to all the information in the world without stepping outside. With the smartphone, we could answer an email or look something up on Google from anywhere — a task previously accessible only from our desk chair.

For the breakthrough computing wave beyond the smartphone, the technology must be “10x” faster to start using than reaching into your pocket. That’s quite the bar.

2. Powerful Scenarios

A trillion-dollar computing wave doesn’t happen by merely making it easier to accomplish jobs already being done by existing technology. It must enable new, powerful scenarios at scale that were previously impossible.

For example, in 2008, the iPhone 3G shipped with a GPS sensor, the App Store, and a set of APIs to access the hardware. This was the foundational building block that enabled Uber, Lyft, and countless others to build apps that let a person summon a car to their exact location at a moment’s notice. The ride sharing revolution went on to create a quarter trillion dollars of enterprise value alone.

The smartphone additionally brought the rise of casual gaming, real-time social networking, rich messaging, and more.

Similarly, the internet enabled the birth of the ecommerce industry from nothing, which is now over $3 trillion. Computing waves are not incremental: the new scenarios enable step-function creation of entirely new industries.

3. A Rich Ecosystem

Breakthrough technology waves require great platforms that can be built upon. The PC had Windows. The internet had the World Wide Web. The iPhone had the App Store. And each of these had associated business models that enabled enormous financial reward for the developers who succeeded in building on the platform.

If the company that built a technology doesn’t put in the work to enable the creativity of the masses, it may be a great product, but it won’t be a technology wave. It takes an ecosystem.

Could AirPods be the next major wave of computing? Before we answer that, let’s dive into `why we just can’t seem to pull them out of our ears.

AirPods: the next wave?

(Apple Photo)

Despite many platforms and technologies rising in the last decade, none have come close to the wild success of the smartphone. Smartwatches didn’t enable powerful-enough new scenarios. Tablets didn’t create a massive reduction in friction. AR glasses have largely been prototypes, and VR goggles haven’t reduced the friction to compute.

Will AirPods be able to break through where the others have not? Let’s look at our three criteria.

They certainly reduce the friction to compute. For tasks like setting reminders, making phone calls, and listening to podcasts, they are one of the few devices that truly enable a 10x easier computing experience on-the-go. With the charging case conveniently always in my pocket, Apple has created a seamless experience to transition into “AirPods mode.”

There are powerful scenarios lurking on the horizon, though I don’t think we yet know what the “killer app” of the AirPods era of computing will be. I also think that there is a significant “creepy factor” to some of the scenarios. Imagine if the next generation of AirPods didn’t obstruct sound from the real world at all. Why ever take them out? What if they could identify the person you’re talking to and give you audio cues during the conversation? Or transcribe action items to send out? Or listen for commands to take far richer actions than just “remind me to buy more Nespresso pods”?

The one place where AirPods absolutely fall down in their current state is in building a developer ecosystem. Apple has wildly restricted the ways that apps can interact with Siri, the exclusive AirPods interface, and I don’t see this changing meaningfully anytime soon. There’s a strong chance it will not be Apple who succeeds in making frictionless, on-the-go audio the computing platform of the future.

Who will win?

The classic dogma in tech punditry implores that the victors of the previous war rarely win the next. Microsoft dominated the PC wave and missed the smartphone (and the internet for that matter). Apple, with their backs against the wall, was baggage-free to innovate and create a purpose-built operating system and device from scratch to invent a brand new paradigm with the iPhone.

To date, Apple has the only meaningful product in the landscape of “personal audio computing” (though we’re going to need a much catchier name than that — PAC for now?) They’ve chosen to tightly tie AirPods to iOS, Siri, and the iPhone ecosystem. It’s been a source of strength so far, as AirPods primarily extend use cases that people already do on iOS, but there’s a good chance that the platform that emerges victorious in this new frontier will build a new ecosystem from scratch, not dependent on an existing platform, the same way that Amazon seems to have won the war for the home with Alexa.

Speaking of Amazon: the company is reported to have their own AirPods-like device in the works that will likely have the full power of Alexa in your ear — Skills ecosystem and all.

To the extent that PAC is just an extension of the smartphone, we should already declare Apple victorious in this mini-wave and move on. But to the extent that we are seeing the emergence of a new computing wave, AirPods are the Windows Mobile, and the war is just getting started.

So will AirPods become the next wave in computing? No. But their descendants will be. And when coupled with augmented reality to provide a vision interface as well, the explosion of powerful new scenarios will be staggering — but that’s for another essay.

Author’s note: This post was originally inspired by a tweetstorm, which was itself inspired by a discussion on the Limited Partner bonus show of the Acquired podcast.

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