Now hear this: slick new AirPods indicate where Apple is going next

8 Sep 2016

The AirPods hint at a future of wearable devices that don't require a screen but that can do complex computing easily and almost invisibly

Apple’s new wireless headphones, called AirPods, were possibly the worst kept secret in the tech world until their reveal last night (7 September), but what no one was expecting was the sheer amount of intelligence that has been built into the diminutive devices.

“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller famously raved in 2013 after the Californian tech giant once again ran the gauntlet of criticism for not introducing new form factors, or televisions, or whatever the masses would salivate for, fast enough.

It is true that there is a pattern to what Apple does and, a lot of the time, it can be predictable, with innovations in the iOS world inevitably making their way to the Mac world and vice-versa, a numbering system for the iPhone family, better battery life, more storage and faster processors, and on it goes.

‘It took courage to get rid of the headphone jack and use Lightning instead’

But, then again, it can’t be easy to do what Apple does when you consider the vastness of the operation, some 115,000 people to feed, and managing a supply chain that extends to the magnitude of 1bn iPhone devices sold so far.

The new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, as well as the Apple Watch Series 2 and the AirPod headphones, are all going to be manufactured and shipped to appear in dozens of countries by 16 September. That is next week. Now that is some impressive logistics.

Turning around a 40-year-old battleship to compete in the nimble and fast-moving tech world must be a feat in itself and that’s why making use of existing and popular chassis such as the iPhone 6 design, which carries through mostly to the iPhone 7, or the iPhone 5s chassis to pack serious firepower into the diminutive iPhone SE, is just boxing clever.

And that’s why it gets predictable at times. It is just sensible. But when Apple has an unexpected trick or two up its sleeve, it can be transformative.

Courage and calculation

Observing CEO Tim Cook and Phil Schiller on stage last night – albeit by video link – I couldn’t help but think how personally Apple, as a collective, thinks about its products. And hence Schiller’s comment in 2013; they care a lot about what people think.

While I know Apple over the years through journalism, studying how they think about things is interesting. I once asked an Apple engineer why the Mac doesn’t have a touchscreen. He sighed in an exasperated way, shrugged, and said people’s arms would get tired. They think a lot about these things.

Oftentimes, insights come from former employees. One, now the CEO of a fast-growing software company, described his time with Apple as “emotional.” Another, a start-up founder, recalled how when the late Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, all innovation was halted. “Everything just stopped for a while,” he remembered. Innovation is a personal thing at Apple.

This came to mind last night as Schiller described the decision to no longer use the 3.5in headphone jack that has sat inside devices for more than half a century and omit it from its newest iPhone 7 line-up, using the word “courage.”

“It took courage to get rid of the headphone jack and use Lightning instead,” Schiller said, adding that this will free up an enormous amount of space within devices. “Space is at a premium. Once you have a vision of how the audio experience can be, you get there as fast as you can with a vision for how it should work.”

While Apple’s chief designer Jony Ive puts out videos illustrating innovative use of new materials like ceramic or metals, Schiller gave a rare insight into the thinking behind technological shifts at Apple.

If anything, Lightning connectors are going to star a lot more in future Apple products, beginning with the AirPods.

Listen bud, lend me your ears


In that little white tic-tac box lies the future of how humans will interface with wearable computers


“Until now, no one has taken on the challenge of delivering a wireless experience between a personal device and the headphones,” Schiller said before revealing the new AirPods. I am sure Motorola with its VerveOne earphones would have something to say about that.

But Schiller was alluding to more than just a sonic experience, he was alluding to a tactile new way of interacting between devices and getting and sending information.

The AirPods aren’t just wireless headphones, they are an insight into the future shape of Apple and how we may interact with computing in the years ahead through various wearable form factors.

The thing that made me feel giddy was the intuitive, invisible interface that is being employed on the AirPod device.

We have already gone from the concept of a computer being a thing on your desk to something that sits in your pocket or on your wrist.

Powered by a new W1 chip, infrared sensors detect when the AirPod is in your ear so music or podcasts only play when the device knows it is in your ear and ready to listen.

Motion accelerometers respond to your finger touching the AirPods to access Siri, which you can use to launch a search, dictate an email or iMessage or a lot more.

The AirPods, which will retail at €179, come with a wireless charging case, which itself contains and stores energy and can be charged with a Lightning connector.

This is where the subtlety and intriguing technology that comes with the AirPods interests me. The charging case can store over 24 hours of extra energy and pretty much syncs the AirPod with your iPhone or Apple Watch or Mac or iPad by just opening the box. No more fiddling with settings to pair the device.

I think this is a very revealing insight into the future direction of Apple from the perspective of wireless, invisible interfaces; tactile interaction with entertainment and information without even looking at a screen.

Yes, the iPhone 7 with its new camera is compelling, I’m a big fan of the waterproof features on the iPhone 7 and the new Apple Watch Series 2.

But the winner for me is the invisible interface and what it could mean for a variety of form factors in the future.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years