Much Ado About Jack: What We’re Missing about AirPods

On September 7, Apple announced its next iteration of iPhone, Mac OS, iOS, and other technology. While every Apple Keynote is always met with smatterings of skepticism or outrage over changes to design, functionality, and user experience, this year was different. This year’s keynote was met with downright vitriol and outrage over a single element – the removal of the headphone jack on the new iPhone 7 and the introduction of wireless AirPods.

Although it seems I’m in the minority here, I was eminently excited about this possibility leading up to the event. (I’ll talk more about why later). After the event, I was actually shocked to see the outright negativity that spewed forth from both Apple users and non-users. To try and understand why so many views contradicted my own, I combed the interwebs looking for the most coherent reasons why the new AirPods caused such an innate stir. Most of the arguments I found could be lumped into two main categories:

  • Price
  • Nostalgia

Although other technical concerns were noted, the two categories above vastly outweigh those concerns in the public discourse. But I think it’s appropriate to reset some expectations about Apple.

Price

Coming in late October, the new AirPods will run you $159.00, plus tax. Many Apple fans are balking at such a staggering price for an essential iPhone accessory, especially considering the headphone jack has been removed in the phone’s latest iteration. Therefore, the argument goes, Apple is forcing its users to pay an absurd amount of money on top of the iPhone’s already high price. Setting aside the fact that all new phone purchases will come with a lightning adapter so users can continue to use wired headphones, they’re not wrong. It is an expensive purchase.

But they’re not right, either. Apple products aren’t cheap, and they’ve never set the expectation that their products are. Apple is expensive, and they always have been. Although Android fanboys may disagree, Apple products work, and they’re a market leader in user experience. Apple may not be the first to introduce certain technologies – smartphones and wireless headphones existed before Apple moved into each respective market – but where they excel is in reinventing and improving upon new technologies. Sure, the rhetoric the company uses may seem to indicate they’re the first ones to have ever entertained certain ideas, but that’s simple misdirection. The company is built from the ground up on user experience. They research current market trends, determine what’s popular and what users want most out of their technology, then pounce when the time is right by producing and delivering the products and experiences users want most.

Innovation, technology that works, and a seamless user experience isn’t cheap. Sure, you can go on Amazon right now and purchase a set of wireless headphones/ear phones for under $20. But I’ll bet the quality of sound and the way the devices fit in your ears will in no way compare to Apple’s AirPods. I may be somewhat biased here, but my ears are slightly smaller than the typical user. The only in-ear device that has ever felt comfortable or natural in my ears are Apple’s ear phones, hands down. No other product even comes close. And yes, I may be paying extra for that comfort, but I want a technology product that doesn’t intrude on my daily life, but rather enhances it. That’s what Apple does for me, and I fully understand I’ll pay extra for it.

Nostalgia

Just imagine how absurd it may sound today if someone was still complaining about the extinction of corded phones – you know, the ones that relegated you to the kitchen and you’d walk in a continuous 5 foot radius until the cord was knotted from here ‘til Christmas. They may say, “But my corded phone worked just fine! I loved the feel of twirling the cord around my fingers as I talked to my BFF. Why would I want a smaller wireless phone? I’ll just lose it!”

Nearly 20 years later, this line of reasoning sounds fairly inconceivable, right? Well, it’s basically the same argument many are making about Apple’s AirPods and the removal of the headphone jack on its newest iteration of iPhone. Personally, I absolutely love getting my headphone cord hung on door handles, only to be vigorously ripped from the phone in my pocket and violently pulled from my ears. These are the times, man.

There is, however, a valid argument to be made about the wired products users already have, and such a move will mean we’ll all need to buy new products to keep up with newer technology. But the same argument could have been made (and indeed was made) about 8-tracks, floppy disks, CDs, and the mullet. Sometimes, things change for the better, although some people are still desperately clinging to the mullet as the highest and purest form of hairstyle ever invented by humanity. And as a society we either ignore those people because they’re crazy or we give them their very own reality show for the exact same reason.

Nostalgia about a certain product, or one that “works just fine the way it is” is not a valid argument to halt the advancement of technology and innovation. Remember your fifth grade teacher’s canned response when asked why you couldn’t use a calculator on the test? “You won’t have a calculator with you all the time in life,” she’d say. Oh, how times have changed! I hope teachers have updated this line of reasoning…

 

We’re Missing the Collective Boat

Humanity is one step closer to real augmented human technology, where wearable tech becomes fully integrated into our everyday lives. In a real sense, we’re already there. Imagine going to work without your phone or computer – you wouldn’t be able to function. Although phones and computers aren’t directly tethered to our physical bodies (yet), we’re already beginning to see the first steps towards the inevitable future, where wearable technology becomes as essential a part of our physical selves as clothes.

Apple has taught us, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to think in 1-year increments when it comes to innovation and product life cycles. However, this thinking is closing our eyes to the bigger picture. Apple has been setting us up for the AirPod for years – we just didn’t see it. Each new iteration of Mac OS, iOS, iPhone, and Apple Watch comes with advancements in platform integration, allowing all devices (assuming they’re Apple devices) to become more fully integrated across each platform. If you take a photo on your iPhone, it’ll show up on your Mac. If you’re working on a Pages document on your Mac, you can pick it up on your iPhone and continue working on the train into work. Our calendars, contacts, notes, mail, music, and text messages are synced across every Apple device. All without the need to physically connect one device to another thanks to Cloud technology.

AirPods are the next step towards a truly wireless future, allowing humanity to more seamlessly interact with the technology that drives and enhances our lives. We have to think beyond just this year and begin to look decades down the technology road and where it will lead us. The only next step for a completely wireless phone is to remove the charging cord – and some devices have already done this. So where will technology take us in 20 years? THAT’S where Apple and other technology leaders are focused. But it takes product cycles and iterations to bridge the gap between current technological capabilities and the vision of where that technology can take us decades from now. AirPods are simply a small portion of the broader technology roadmap, leading to more seamless interactions between human and tech.

 

*There’s a broader argument to be made about the cyborg, or augmented human, and the intersection between humanity and technology. But I’ll leave that for another time.

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