I am currently in a mood between anticipation and disappointment about a new gadget: Apple’s upcoming new wireless headphones AirPods. I see a significant potential in the new headphone device that is said to hit the stores in the end of October, and I’d love to try integrating it into my digital life. However, the AirPods’ shape is nearly identical to the one of the default iPhone headphones “EarPods”, and those just do not stay in my ears longer than a few seconds. Any pair of dirt-cheap no-name headphones are fitting better for me. As long as Apple won’t release a second version with a different shape, I won’t shell out the €179 for a pair of AirPods.
That’s a shame of course, because as a concept, I see much more in those little gadgets than just a wireless version of standard in-ear headphones. This Slate article and this one on TechCrunch do a good job explaining the product and the big picture behind. In regards to the strategical meaning for Apple and the implications for the users and the digital landscape, I actually see some major similarities to Google’s (failed) Augmented Reality headset Glass. Let’s have a closer look at that comparison.
A bet on the future of computing
Apple’s intentions with the release of the AirPods is to encourage and enable people to interact with Siri in as many life situations as possible. Amazon proved with its smart box Echo that users respond well to voice control, if done right. However, outside of people’s homes, playback via loudspeaker is not feasible. The only solution right now is via in-ear playback. For Apple, AirPods represent a major step into a new age of human-computer-interaction. That also was the goal of Google Glass, only with the difference of being focused on sight/AR instead of voice.
Possibility of unpredictable new usage patterns
Since Google Glass never hit the stores outside of Google’s very limited Explorer programme, the answer to how usage patterns would have evolved among mainstream users remains unknown. But a lot of predictions were made and ideas proposed. Even when it comes to AirPods, it’s unclear how the wireless headphones will change their owners’ behaviour, but it is likely to assume that new behaviours will evolve. Maybe AirPod users will start to communicate over AirPods even on short distances (even if they could shout to each other). Maybe they’ll get so used to carry the headphones in their ears that they keep them inside all the time, except during showers. Maybe that will make people become even more likely to indulge in all kinds of audio content and uninterested in visual content. Maybe AirPods will help people to become comfortable to talk to machines in public (I still doubt it but we’ll see). Or maybe nothing will happen. One doesn’t known yet.
One of the supposed main reasons for the failure of Google Glass was its public perception. Rather quickly a consensus arose about that wearing Glass made you look stupid. In a professional setup that would not be a deal breaker, but it is if you just wanted to take a walk or go to a party with a Google headset on your nose. With a few exceptions, most people want to be liked and not look like clowns or cyborgs – unless everyone else within the peer group does the same. With its appearance as seemingly cut-off in-ear headphones, the AirPods’ design looks strange as well. Kind of like those wireless Bluetooth headsets predominantly worn by men in upper age groups who have adopted a principle of always favoring practicality over style. Unsurprisingly, right after the presentation of the AirPods at the Apple keynote, social media erupted with jokes and mockery. However, if the umbrella would be introduced in 2016, it is safe to assume that it would lead to similar reactions. The key question is whether the perceived added value for the user is big enough and the company’s branding effort favorable enough so that initial negative feedback from the community is not considered a reason to give in to peer pressure. Once the public has gotten used to an initially unusual sight, nobody will question it anymore.
Impact on surroundings and non-users
Google Glass was considered controversial by many due to its inevitable breaching of people’s personal integrity, since there was the constant risk of being recorded by a Glass user looking into your direction. When it comes to AirPods, users do not need to worry about privacy issues. Nevertheless, potential for friction and conflict with surrroundings exists. If users start to get so comfortable with the AirPods that they never take them out, people who they have face-to-face interactions with might get irritated. Also there is a risk of bothering noises caused by AirPod wearers who loudly, maybe even with a slight frustration, have conversations with Siri in public. In addition to chatty people who are always talking on the phone, this could become another source of annoyance. But of course, since evolving user patterns are hard to predict, we’ll have to wait and see whether and how norms might change in a world in which AirPods become widely adopted.
Despite these various parallels I see AirPods having better chances than Google Glass. They are nevertheless a smaller step forward from a usability point of view, significiantly cheaper, they offer a clear value (cords simply suck and the promised seamless Bluetooth connection process with iOS devices sounds great on paper) and are being introduced by Apple with a rather modest approach, which reduces the risk of massive disappointment. One also has to expect that in case Apple will produce further generations of the AirPods, they’ll shrink until one day you’ll have to look closely to see them sitting in the wearer’s ears.
And if AirPods despite their predicted strengths should not become a customer success, then the list of analogies to Google Glass is getting even longer.
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