Apps for the AirPods… A Card Up Apple’s Sleeve?

Headphones are on the verge of becoming something so much more than we can imagine. No longer just an accessory, they’re becoming a device that’s at the center of our attention. AirPods are more than earbuds. They’re a computing platform capable of reducing life’s friction and bringing us new experiences.

If you don’t understand the craze of AirPods, then walk down the street or look around your office and see how long it takes to count a dozen people with AirPods glued in their ears.

If the $8 billion figure for AirPods [2019] revenue is accurate, that business alone would rank No. 384 in the Fortune 500, just ahead of Foot Locker, Motorola, and chipmaker AMD.

Don Reisinger, Fortune

Headphones for a long time were just a throwaway accessory – cheap, plastic, and always hurt your ears. Now, for an estimated 30 million AirPods owners (on the very low end), their headphones have become a daily pocket feature. Alongside the wallet, keys, and phone, AirPods are an essential that many won’t leave the house without.

So far, the genius of AirPods are that this cordless, weightless technology has enabled people to keep their headphones in-ear for longer periods throughout the day – whether consciously or unconsciously.

I, along with millions of others, keep the AirPods in even when I’m not listening to audio. And I know a lot of people that wear them straight through conversations.

With the habits of “always-in headphones” already formed, what’s possible for AirPods?

The First Headphone Program

Bose proved to us that people will pay a steep price for serenity. Whether at the office, on a plane, or in a noisy home, people will reach for a $400 pair of Bose headphones.

I’d argue that noise-cancellation technology was the first great computer program of headphones. Specifically active noise-cancellation, which uses a microphone to measure ambient (outside) noise, generates a sound waveform that is the exact negative, and mixes them to cancel one another out – leaving just the audio you desire.

Bose showed us what noise cancellation should be. Apple is bringing it to the entire world.

The AirPods Pro are out. They feature noise-cancellation that I believe is on-par with Bose. They’re more convenient than big, clunky over-the-ear headphones. Their transparency mode – in which the headphones let outside audio in – is some of the best I’ve heard yet. And they’ve upgraded the fit because they know people are wearing them all day.

Rarely do I give device reviews. But when I do, I’m serious about the product. And I wholeheartedly believe that 2020 or 2021 is going to be big for AirPods Pro. 

This is because the AirPods Pro can be more than a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds. They’re a computer. The AirPods Pro feature a new H1 chip that gives them more opportunity for experience development.

What other functions might we get from AirPods?

Headphone Apps

I started thinking about the headphones-as-a-platform after discovering a new social startup called TTYL.

TTYL makes an iPhone app that aims to change how people talk to each other over the phone. The app notifies people who are wearing headphones when their friends are also active in the app, giving them the ability to instantly drop into an audio call.

The Information

Essentially they’re using the always-in AirPods as an entrypoint into spontaneous phone conversations. They’re betting that phone calls can make a comeback for social interaction – in lieu of photos or tweetstorms.

TTYL makes sense in the context of a whole generation who grew up without a home phone. Gen Z doesn’t know “proper” phone etiquette, so randomly dropping in on someone’s AirPods isn’t that bizarre.

The app doesn’t work very well today because Apple is keeping a very tight leash on developer integration with the AirPods and Siri. But when Apple decides to “flip a switch” and open this platform up, I’m anticipating a flurry of new ideas like TTYL.

AirPods are in the iPhone 2008 moment still. No one knows what they’re capable of yet.

We might see an AirPods App Store that has all types of experiences ranging from entertainment to productivity. I think an AirPods App that narrated your location, like a tour guide, would be quite interesting. You could discover all types of new facts about the environment you inhabit every day.

The “AirPods App Store” is still at least 3 years away (if at all) because it’s dependent on Apple opening the platform up.

Regardless, the big kahuna of headphone computing will be Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant.

Headphones, the New Touch Screen

I realize that this sounds like a broken record for emerging technology. Next thing I’ll say that AirPods will mine Bitcoin, CRISPR-edit your genome, and generate fake news. But in all seriousness, the AirPods and Siri are a perfect match.

The AirPods add an extra source of context to our interactions with voice assistants. Many of our qualms with Siri or Alexa, today, stem from the fact that they don’t always understand context.

For example, let’s say you’re reading an email from your coworker talking about the upcoming conference in Miami, with dates and details. You haven’t booked your flight yet, but don’t have time to right now. So you say, “Hey Siri, set a reminder for me to book a flight tomorrow at 8pm.”

Siri will remind you tomorrow at 8pm to book a flight. But did you actually mean that you wanted your flight to leave at 8pm? Siri doesn’t know. This is a very basic example where context is lost on Siri. 

However, pairing the iPhone and AirPods makes for a better interaction with Siri, because Siri can utilize two sources of context – your voice and what’s on your screen – to understand your request.

In the above scenario, while looking at this email, asking Siri to remind you to book your flight via your AirPods, Siri sees the email you’re reading and knows the conference is Friday. Therefore, Siri knows that you probably need to book at flight that leaves on Thursday.

Obviously, this function doesn’t yet exist. But I’d imagine it’s what Apple is designing with a Siri, AirPods, and iPhone interplay.

In this sense, the AirPods become an action interface just like the mouse or the keyboard or the touch screen. Touch screens weren’t perfect when they came out. Most people still preferred the Blackberry. But who has a button keyboard today? Likewise, AirPods and voice commands will take some time to come around.