14 votes

The secrets behind the runaway success of Apple’s AirPods

21 comments

  1. [21]
    vord
    Link
    My own evaluation is that this success is not (as I got from the vibe of the article) a happy accident, but rather a very calculated move that is paying off dividends. Airpods likely wouldn't have...

    My own evaluation is that this success is not (as I got from the vibe of the article) a happy accident, but rather a very calculated move that is paying off dividends.

    Airpods likely wouldn't have been nearly as successful if not for the simultaneous dropping of the headphone jack. They were (are?) perceived as the highest-quality option when all other options were swept off the table. With a highly interopable standard like a headphone jack, anybody can churn out a higher quality or cheaper product with minimal effort. Or people could use old headphones and not have to upgrade them...a well-kept pair of headphones from the 80s still worked if desired.

    Apple has shown that they are incredibly savvy at planned obsolescence. While they do support their phones for a long while, they also engage in heavy marketing. It turns phones from a utilitarian tool into a fashion statement and status symbol.

    The Airpods are the evolution of this strategy. I suspect that eliminating the charging port is being done for the same reasons.

    While the first iterations of these iphones still use common standards, I don't forsee that lasting long. A few generations in, Apple could implent their own standard shutting out all other competitors. They've got a long history of pushing proprietary standards over open ones, and once a device is fully sealed off, it's far easier to force adoption of these standards, which they'll also profit from thanks to patents.

    14 votes
    1. [12]
      NaraVara
      Link Parent
      Their next generation Macbooks are on USB-C. Before that they pushed USB 3.0. Before that their main standard was FireWire, which was basically just used by Apple nerds, but was still an IEEE...

      They've got a long history of pushing proprietary standards over open ones

      Their next generation Macbooks are on USB-C. Before that they pushed USB 3.0. Before that their main standard was FireWire, which was basically just used by Apple nerds, but was still an IEEE standard that anyone could have used. Their optical drives were CD and DVD-ROMs. Their headphone jacks were standard headphone jacks with built-in standard optical ports.

      The only major place where they consciously pushed a proprietary standard over an open one was using lightning instead of USB-a and that was focused more on lightning being an objectively better solution than USB-a was. I don't know where else this argument about there being a "long history" would come from? They ditched the proprietary magsafe charger for USB-C, an open standard. They're phasing out lightning based charging in favor of Qi wireless charging, another open standard. Their wireless headphones use Bluetooth, another open standard, with their value additions being a proprietary W1 chip that supports capabilities that Bluetooth cannot.

      So what's left? iMessage? FaceTime?

      9 votes
      1. [4]
        brews_hairy_cats
        Link Parent
        "Long history" is true, though. Just because recent history is moving them back in the right direction, in large part due to market and regulatory forces, does not erase history going further...

        "Long history" is true, though. Just because recent history is moving them back in the right direction, in large part due to market and regulatory forces, does not erase history going further back.

        Yes, to take the Lightning to USB-C move, the tail end is moving away from proprietary components. But in order to move away from proprietary, they had to start at proprietary at some point. See this article https://venturebeat.com/2018/10/30/heres-why-apples-ipad-pro-dumped-lightning-for-usb-c/ explaining how they would have stayed proprietary to rake in the cash, except they were bleeding the small ecosystem of hardware creators under their control, which came back to hurt Apple's bottom line too. And around that time there were also governments starting to breathe down their necks regarding proprietary components. So they conceded, in that one specific case.

        Also, right to repair? Screws, internal connectors, SSDs, RAM? Still an ongoing problem.

        Metal, the graphics API, was a funny example of them doing something nonstandard, because they pretty much shot themselves in the foot with that one, pushing away large swathes of game developers. Anyway we have unofficial Vulkan-on-Metal APIs now so that's not as much of an interesting discussion today.

        10 votes
        1. [3]
          NaraVara
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          Dude no. I just pointed out tons of examples of not at all recent history. Even before FireWire it was standard parallel ports. It was Apple who was fighting for open web standards with Netscape...

          "Long history" is true, though. Just because recent history is moving them back in the right direction, in large part due to market and regulatory forces, does not erase history going further back.

          Dude no. I just pointed out tons of examples of not at all recent history. Even before FireWire it was standard parallel ports. It was Apple who was fighting for open web standards with Netscape and then Mozilla while Microsoft was making it all some messy IE crap. There is no decent case to be made that there is a “long history” here.

          See this article https://venturebeat.com/2018/10/30/heres-why-apples-ipad-pro-dumped-lightning-for-usb-c/ explaining how they would have stayed proprietary to rake in the cash

          I mean, I see the article but it doesn’t actually reference any primary sources. It’s literally just the author’s speculating in the least charitable possible ways. No interviews, no numbers, nothing empirical to actually back the assertions. It’s little more than a just-so story. This is really not a thoughtfully written piece.

          And “raking in the cash” from lightning accessories is honestly just a ridiculous claim. Do you have a chart somewhere showing some massive amount of money in their balance sheet from a connector monopoly? No, it’s barely rounding error on their balance sheet.

          And around that time there were also governments starting to breathe down their necks regarding proprietary components.

          EU regulators have been notoriously incompetent at actually understanding anything about big tech or data privacy. The cookie law has been a counterproductive disaster. Their stances on data sovereignty and data sharing make it basically impossible to build interoperable components or run an international technology business that caters to European customers without jumping through a bunch of hoops that don’t actually protect anyone’s privacy. Their hearts are in the right place, but in terms of execution they have tragic records of constantly barking the the wrong trees. I don’t see any strong argument that their specifically going after Apple is motivated by anything other than regulators wanting to get a big, shiny collar.

          Also, right to repair? Screws, internal connectors, SSDs, RAM? Still an ongoing problem.

          How do you figure Apple makes money by making it harder to repair their stuff or use weird screw heads? The logic here completely breaks down once you notice that Apple is on the hook for doing most of the repairs since they have fairly cheap extended warranties and generous policies around just replacing your device.

          pushing away large swathes of game developers.

          They can’t push away a group that was never around to begin with. Game developers (and an idea Nvidia [h/t hungariantoast]) have been bad at supporting OpenGL basically since forever, and Apple has never given a single shit about core gaming as an market to pursue. This has nothing to do with their bottom line.

          6 votes
          1. [2]
            hungariantoast
            Link Parent
            I'm confused, is there a typo in this statement? Did you mean: ?

            Game developers (and an idea) have been bad at supporting OpenGL basically since forever

            I'm confused, is there a typo in this statement? Did you mean:

            Game developers (and Apple) have been bad at supporting OpenGL [on macOS?] basically since forever

            ?

            1. NaraVara
              Link Parent
              Oops. Damn autocorrect, "an idea" was supposed to be "Nvidia." Their drivers on the Mac have always been way behind.

              Oops. Damn autocorrect, "an idea" was supposed to be "Nvidia." Their drivers on the Mac have always been way behind.

              2 votes
      2. babypuncher
        Link Parent
        FireWire was very important in digital content production for a long time, which is why it was all over Apple's high end computers. It offered more bandwidth than USB, supported daisy chaining,...

        FireWire was very important in digital content production for a long time, which is why it was all over Apple's high end computers. It offered more bandwidth than USB, supported daisy chaining, and allowed for isochronous real-time data transfer. That last bit made it much more reliable for capturing data from devices that read digital video tape, since a constant data rate needs to be maintained.

        5 votes
      3. [2]
        nothis
        Link Parent
        There's a long-running narrative of what Apple does to lock-in their systems and it's often not very precise. Open standards is not their problem. Even on the software side, macOS is basically the...

        There's a long-running narrative of what Apple does to lock-in their systems and it's often not very precise. Open standards is not their problem. Even on the software side, macOS is basically the best Unix system out there.

        What Apple does is very specific: It limits the amount of hardware supported by their current OS (say, only one processor type) and, with their mobile devices, they lock software behind their App Store. Now the hardware support thing isn't that awful. There's rumors of them doing their own chips for future macbooks, which would make me very sad, but currently, you can just install Windows 10 on a macbook without a problem, if you really have to. The App Store on iOS is the only truly limiting lock-in they're doing.

        3 votes
        1. NaraVara
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I think the point you're making is a much more defensible and well supported argument. I think where the balance of disagreement falls is what we impute about their intentions behind these things....

          I think the point you're making is a much more defensible and well supported argument. I think where the balance of disagreement falls is what we impute about their intentions behind these things. Apple actually does have a strong point that the best, most stable, and most secure computing experience happens when you have a holistic design process that governs the hardware, software, and ecosystem around it. I think the problem they run into is that this is a much harder philosophy to stick to when you're a mass-market, general purpose electronics maker than it was when they were a quirky niche brand for nerds and eccentric creatives.

          Their culture and DNA is still a bit skewed towards that idea of being a quirky niche brand that shouldn't need to serve all and sundry use cases out there. But the problem is, we all demand broader classes of usability and compatibility from our computers than they're designing for, which is why it feels like we're being oppressively locked in. Stuff is more complicated now. It used to be that you didn't have your choice of 10 word processors and 100 media player apps on the Mac. You just had the 1 or 2. But the 1 or 2 were phenomenal and did basically everything you could want them to in a thoughtful way. And besides, compatibility issues were part of the deal when you were bought into the Macintosh world that everyone accepted as part of the cost of doing business.

          But today, it's hard to actually do that. The environment is too heterogenous. Everything has too many interdependencies. The order of complexity is just too high for Apple's boutiquey, atelier sensibilities to keep up with as gracefully as they once did.

          4 votes
      4. [4]
        onyxleopard
        Link Parent
        Jobs also had promised a FaceTime protocol would be opened up. (Still waiting on that to come true, though.)

        FaceTime

        Jobs also had promised a FaceTime protocol would be opened up. (Still waiting on that to come true, though.)

        1. [3]
          NaraVara
          Link Parent
          Apparently he just said it on stage without clearing it with anyone and all the engineers who built it freaked out. It turns out FaceTime actually depends on a bunch of third party plugins that...

          Apparently he just said it on stage without clearing it with anyone and all the engineers who built it freaked out. It turns out FaceTime actually depends on a bunch of third party plugins that Apple couldn’t open source even if they wanted to, because they don’t own the pieces.

          They actually got sued by multiple patent trolls over FaceTime and had to settle out of court.

          3 votes
          1. [2]
            onyxleopard
            Link Parent
            Classic Jobs. Do you happen to know if the current FaceTime tech is still the same as what they used when they introduced it? I could imagine if Apple might have at some point decided to roll...

            Classic Jobs.

            Do you happen to know if the current FaceTime tech is still the same as what they used when they introduced it? I could imagine if Apple might have at some point decided to roll their own streaming video tech and wouldn’t be against opening it up like they did with their lossless audio codec.

            1. NaraVara
              Link Parent
              I have to imagine it’s not. They’ve definitely changed how they do the video compression at least once. But complicated services like these are basically impossible for a single company to just...

              I have to imagine it’s not. They’ve definitely changed how they do the video compression at least once. But complicated services like these are basically impossible for a single company to just open up on their own.

              It’s always such a rats nest of IP claims that even if they DO own all of it they don’t always know for sure that they own all of it. Programmers aren’t known for being fastidious about documentation. If you’ve got a a team of 30 people making something, how sure is someone in the legal department on the other side of the building that nobody lifted some random snippet of code off github at some point?

              1 vote
    2. [5]
      babypuncher
      Link Parent
      The same can be said of bluetooth, but nobody has come up with a product that does it as well as AirPods do. I really don't think people are buying $150 earbuds just because their phone lacks a...

      With a highly interopable standard like a headphone jack, anybody can churn out a higher quality or cheaper product with minimal effort.

      The same can be said of bluetooth, but nobody has come up with a product that does it as well as AirPods do.

      I really don't think people are buying $150 earbuds just because their phone lacks a 3.5mm jack. It's not exactly hard or inconvenient, to just leave a lightning adapter on the end of your headphone cable. I was doing that with my earbuds in 2009 with my HTC Magic.

      4 votes
      1. [4]
        NaraVara
        Link Parent
        The AirPods aren't just vanilla bluetooth though. They have that W1 chip that supports the seamless data-sharing/pairing experience. It does a lot of other things besides, but the operating hassle...

        The same can be said of bluetooth, but nobody has come up with a product that does it as well as AirPods do.

        The AirPods aren't just vanilla bluetooth though. They have that W1 chip that supports the seamless data-sharing/pairing experience. It does a lot of other things besides, but the operating hassle of setting up bluetooth headphones was probably a big factor in them not seeing big adoption. Apple solved it.

        Also, I think some early adopters (like me) had very bad experiences with early bluetooth headphones that came out before the technology was ready. I had this old pair of Motorola ones that cut out on me so often that I, one day, just totally lost my temper in the middle of a run and chucked them in a canal. They also started electrocuting me in the ears if I worked up too much of a sweat. I hated those headphones and hated Motorola for inflicting those pieces of shit on the world. The experience was so bad I was never going to get another pair until Apple reassured me "No, really. It's good now."

        6 votes
        1. [3]
          Akir
          Link Parent
          It should also be noted that a big reason why airpods have such good audio quality is that it allows streaming mp4/aac directly to be encoded on the earpieces without having to do yet another...

          It should also be noted that a big reason why airpods have such good audio quality is that it allows streaming mp4/aac directly to be encoded on the earpieces without having to do yet another lossy transcoding process. And since Apple owns many of the parents involved in the standard, you still have to pay the apple tax if you want that same quality. This is especially true since IIRC Apple does not support LDAC on any of it's platforms.

          1 vote
          1. emdash
            Link Parent
            The audio quality and Bluetooth seamlessness will get even better when a future iteration inevitably has a 4GB onboard NAND flash chip to smartly cache music, and probably heart rate sensors too...

            The audio quality and Bluetooth seamlessness will get even better when a future iteration inevitably has a 4GB onboard NAND flash chip to smartly cache music, and probably heart rate sensors too for those who workout with headphones in.

          2. NaraVara
            Link Parent
            I think the BeatsX (also owned by Apple) also do this and they're roughly $100 as a cheaper alternative. I'm generally indifferent to audio quality on headphones anyway, though, since the contexts...

            And since Apple owns many of the parents involved in the standard, you still have to pay the apple tax if you want that same quality.

            I think the BeatsX (also owned by Apple) also do this and they're roughly $100 as a cheaper alternative.

            I'm generally indifferent to audio quality on headphones anyway, though, since the contexts where I'm listening (at the park, in the gym, on a bus) tend to have so much ambient noise that it doesn't matter. I do have a set of Sony WH-1000s for home use that I don't notice any real issues with though.

    3. [3]
      emdash
      Link Parent
      I find this honestly hard to believe. There's so many advantages to pocketable Bluetooth headphones for the average consumer that, without a doubt, that is the primary driver for AirPods sales—not...

      I find this honestly hard to believe. There's so many advantages to pocketable Bluetooth headphones for the average consumer that, without a doubt, that is the primary driver for AirPods sales—not just technical improvements either, but QoL ones. If you wear a satchel for example, wired headphones are a recipe for constant irritation. Hell, they practically started the wearable-leave-your-phone-at-home movement—so many people run with just their Apple Watch and AirPods because they get out of the way. There's no wires. Boom! A tangle-free workout.

      Apple built a good enough product that was approachable to the masses and provided quality integration with the iPhone that make them the perfect pocketable Christmas and birthday gift for millions of people. We'll look back in 20 years at complaints about removing the headphone jack from consumer electronics products in the same way Apple removed the floppy disk drive from the iMac.

      4 votes
      1. babypuncher
        Link Parent
        I think the fact that Linus Sebastian uses AirPods as his daily drivers says a lot, since he is also one of the loudest voices decrying the loss of the headphone jack. He doesn't even use his...

        I think the fact that Linus Sebastian uses AirPods as his daily drivers says a lot, since he is also one of the loudest voices decrying the loss of the headphone jack. He doesn't even use his AirPods with an iPhone, so a lot of the magic isn't even there for him.

        3 votes
      2. NaraVara
        Link Parent
        Also the phones keep getting heavier. It's at a point now that when I'm wearing anything with an elastic waistband (which, thanks to COVID, is all the time) having a phone in the pocket will have...

        so many people run with just their Apple Watch and AirPods because they get out of the way.

        Also the phones keep getting heavier. It's at a point now that when I'm wearing anything with an elastic waistband (which, thanks to COVID, is all the time) having a phone in the pocket will have me constantly pulling my pants up.

        And pocketing a phone when wearing athletic shorts is super annoying. It bulges if the shorts are tight like bicycle shorts or it swings around if they're loose like basketball shorts. (What's so funny? Stop sniggering!)

        1 vote