AirPods and competitors: The big impact of small wireless headphones

A German version of this text can be found here.

2018 is only a few days old, but my digital life has already significantly improved: A few weeks ago I finally purchased wireless earphones. Not Apple’s AirPods but a similar product, since I prefer real in-ear headphones. And wow, what a difference the cable-free lifestyle makes.

Ever since I got my first Walkman in the mid 90s, I, like many others, had to struggle with the cables that carried the sound to the ears. There was no alternative. Tangled cables were the norm. No day went by without at least one short moment of frustration caused by cables that somehow were in the way or that accidentally got stuck and subsequently violently pulled out of the ears. While this certainly is a first world problem, it’s one that was eagerly waiting for a solution. Now it is here.

The daily small annoyance I just described suddenly is gone. Even weeks since starting to use the wireless headphones, I still consciously appreciate this new state of affairs on a daily basis. Seeing other people with cables coming out of their pockets, bags and purses, keeps reminding me of how my mobile audio life was before.

However, these sights will probably become rare within a few years. Apple’s Airpods are a big sales hit, and the number of great alternatives is constantly growing. Will.i.am is convinced, too. Even Alexa-powered wireless earphones are about to hit the market.

The trend towards wireless headphones is fueled by various factors: By the smartphone makers’ abandonment of the 3.5mm audio port, by people increasingly seeing others with wireless earphones, by the new possibilities of the Apple Watch LTE as well as by word-of-mouth from people who have gotten rid of the cables and are satisfied with that decision. And of course, wireless headphones are becoming better, less expensive and less clunky.

To my own surprise I am even using the wireless earphones while at home. And I start to understand why Apple chose to make the deactivation of Bluetooth on iOS 11 more cumbersome: The company wants people to see Bluetooth as equally essential for a connected lifestyle as WiFi and the mobile data connection, so that they seamlessly can connect devices such as the Apple Watch or Bluetooth headphones to their iPhone or iPad. One way to get there is to “nudge” people towards not turning Bluetooth off.

Tiny Bluetooth headphones might not appear to be more than a trivial product iteration compared to the progress made in other technological fields. But like with smart speakers for the home, the simple and clear promise of what they are good for is a strength for user adoption, not a weakness.

From an industry perspective, the paradigm of headphones with cords is one of the major obstacles to the breakthrough of auditory interfaces outside of the home. But as soon as millions have become regular and convinced users of Bluetooth-powered wireless earphones who – like me – don’t even feel the urge to take those gadgets out of their ears, a new era beings. An era that at least some tech giants can’t wait to come, and which will allow and eventually encourage us to communicate with personal assistants through our voice when taking a walk or sitting at the bus. Right now this is still largely a theoretical idea. But that will change.

Currently these giants predominantly are Amazon (with the Echo product range), and Apple (with the AirPods). Other companies, such as Facebook or Google, aren’t as keen on the rise of audio and speech as interfaces, considering that their advertisement-based business model works best when people stare at displays. But both companies are aware that they cannot ignore the trend. And Google’s Echo rival Google Home is selling quite well. Google’s AirPods rival Pixel Buds seem to be somewhat of a disappointment, though.

The adoption curve of this product category is predictable: Once enough people have converted to cable free audio playback when on the go, a tipping point is reached, and then the masses will switch rather quickly. As a matter of fact, once you have found your preferred type of wireless earphone, going back would feel like abandoning WiFi in favor of a fixed Internet connection.

At least when it comes to selected urban areas in developed countries, the tipping point could already be really close. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of 2018, a majority of people in pedestrian zones and public transport will be sporting wireless headphones. And maybe only a few years later, someone still using headphones with cords will be looked at as if she/he’d wear a monocle.

Considering both the success of smart speakers for the home as well as the very positive outlook for wireless headphones, 2018 is poised to be the year of the return of audio.

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