In 2016, Apple deleted the 3.5mm headphone jack. Those jerks. But Apple also introduced AirPods. Making them magnificent jerks.
Essentially EarPods with the cords cut off and the stems and buds crammed full of sensors and custom silicon, they looked goofy, they cost more than what you found in dollar stores, and they took longer than expected to hit the market.
But when they finally did, and people got a taste of the freedom that came from no longer having strings to hold them down, we went from the usual self-proclaimed techsperts poking fun at them to to AirPods being heralded as one of the best products to come from Apple in years.
That was 2016 though. So, what can we expect from AirPods in 2019?
January 23, 2019: AirPods 2, with health sensors, rumored to be coming soon
From the randomly accurate Digitimes:
In terms of wireless headsets, Apple is set to release AirPods 2 sometime in the first half of 2019, and the new wireless earbuds with discrete designs to carry health monitoring functions are expected to receive enthusiastic market responses.
If AirPods become the new Apple Watch, what will the Apple Watch become?
AirPods 2: The rumors
Back on September 9, 2017, just a year after the introduction of the first AirPods, Steve Troughton-Smith tweeted a an image he found in a leaked version of the iOS 11 gold master.
…in full, animated glory ? pic.twitter.com/dbU6WaU1B4
— Steve Troughton-Smith (@stroughtonsmith) September 9, 2017
They looked almost exactly the same except for one small but important details: The LED status light was on the outside. It didn’t make much sense back then, but it would in just a few days…
At the September 2017 event, Apple not only announced inductive charging for the then-new iPhone 8 and iPhone X, but also for AirPower — see my previous video, linked in the description below — and AirPods courtesy of a new case with… wait for it… the light moved to the outside.
Apple didn’t say whether or not new AirPods would come with the new, inductive charging case, but did say the case would be available separately for existing AirPod owners who wanted to upgrade.
MacRumors citing « information reportedly sourced from Apple Switzerland » suggested we’d see the new charging case that December and it would cost $69.
December rolled around with no new AirPods in sight. Then, Kuo Ming-Chi, (via MacRumors, he of the supply chain exfiltration fame, added rumors of new AirPods, not just the new case.
upgraded AirPods in 2H18
Kuo said one internal change on the second-generation AirPods will include a « smaller quartz component, » but he didn’t provide any further details about new outward-facing features or improvements to expect.
Mark Gurman, writing for Bloomberg on February 22, 2018:
The model coming as early as this year will let people summon Apple’s Siri digital assistant without physically tapping the headphones by saying « Hey Siri. » The function will work similarly to how a user activates Siri on an iPhone or a HomePod speaker hands-free. The headphones, internally known as B288, will include an upgraded Apple-designed wireless chip for managing Bluetooth connections. The first AirPods include a chip known as the W1, and Apple released the W2 with the Apple Watch last year.
A subsequent model for as early as next year is planned to be water resistant, they added, asking not to be identified discussing private product plans.
The idea for the water-resistant model is for the headphones to survive splashes of water and rain, the people said.
Gurman and Bloomberg returned to AirPods on June 26:
The Cupertino, California-based company is working on new AirPods with noise-cancellation and water resistance, the people said. Apple is trying to increase the range that AirPods can work away from an iPhone or iPad, one of the people said. You won’t be swimming in them though: The water resistance is mainly to protect against rain and perspiration, the people said.
The company has also internally discussed adding biometric sensors to future AirPods, like a heart-rate monitor, to expand its health-related hardware offerings beyond the Apple Watch, another person said. The current AirPods will be refreshed later this year with a new chip and support for hands-free Siri activation, Bloomberg News reported.
Gurman also added rumors of an expanded product line:
There are over-ear headphones coming from Apple, too. Those will compete with pricey models from Bose Corp. and Sennheiser. They will use Apple branding and be a higher-end alternative to the company’s Beats line. Apple originally intended to introduce the headphones by the end of 2018, but has faced development challenges, and is now targeting a launch as early as next year, the people said.
By September of 2018, pretty much everyone seemed to expect the long-awaited inductive charging case at the very least, if not updated AirPods as well, to show up at Apple’s annual iPhone event.
Ming-Chi Kuo, via MacRumors:
Kuo still expects Apple’s long-awaited AirPower charging mat and new AirPods to be released by the end of the year.
Mark Gurman, on Twitter
What to expect on Wednesday: iPhone Xs, Xs Max, Xr + New Apple Watch and new AirPods/AirPower https://t.co/IrDQCVJTX4
— Mark Gurman (@markgurman) September 10, 2018
But, of course, that was not to be.
Kuo Ming-Chi on December 2, via MacRumors:
We attribute AirPods’ dramatic growth (14–16mn, 26–28mn, 50–55mn, 70–80mn and 100–110mn units in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively) to 1) the upgraded model with wireless charging support to benefit shipments to launch in 1Q19, 2) the all-new design model to boost replacement demand to launch in 1Q20, 3) an innovative user experience, and 4) high integration with iOS and Mac products. In summary, AirPods is Apple’s most popular accessory ever, and it currently has the best growth momentum among Apple products.
And again on December 5, also via MacRumors
We believe that the AirPods are more than just earbuds for Apple and will become increasingly important in Apple’s ecosystem for the following reasons. (1) They increase the switching costs for users to Android from the iOS ecosystem. (2) This is an important device for voice assistant/AI services because it can easily enable the voice assistant. (3) The ear is a perfect sensing area for detecting various health data. It may integrate with the Apple Watch to offer better health management in the future.
Also on December 5, MySmartPrice noticed updated AirPods model numbers in the Bluetooth database:
The upcoming wireless earphones have already received Bluetooth SIG Certification, confirming that they will support Bluetooth version 5.0. Moreover, they are expected to offer several biometric ‘Wellness’ features as well. It is also expected that the earphones will offer hands-free access to Siri.
AirPods 2: The potential
Beyond the inductive charging case that Apple has already announced and we’ll presumably see sometime in the New Year, there are a few features that really stand out when it comes to making AirPods really next gen.
Liquid ingress protection, which usually gets simplified to water resistance but in this case really needs to cover everything from rain to sweat, would not only prevent AirPods from being damaged due to weather but due to all the hardcore workouts they often get put through every day. Those don’t often kill AirPods immediately but will over time.
More sophisticated controls are also high on many people’s lists. Apple has already added different options for the accelerometer tap on existing AirPods, and let you split the the controls so tapping one AirPod can do something different than tapping the other.
You can’t control volume yet, though. But, if Apple could add a capacitive layer to the circumference, similar to what was just added to Apple Pencil 2 to switch tools, then maybe you could swipe up to increase and swipe down to decrease volume, and it would be one less reason to reach for your Watch or iPhone any more.
The ability to fit more and varied ears has also come up often. Even though Jony Ive and his team found a way to fit most ears, most of the time, that still leaves some people out. And, at the scale of Apple products, even a small percentage translates into a lot.
My own ears have been mangled by a decade of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so while the left one fits perfectly, the right one is always a little looser. I don’t know if Apple could tweak the shape or the material to hit an even wider range of people, or if it could go to or offer an in-ear alternative for those who really need it, but something. Because AirPods really should be for everyone.
The accessibility benefits alone, from guided walking to full on audio augmented reality are going to demand it soon anyway. Especially if AirPods get into computational 3D audio, so sound can be placed in space, both for mundane things like directions and tours and spectacular things like gaming and entertainment.
Also, of course, color. Especially in the age of iPhone XR where blue, red, yellow, and coral are the new black. Apple seems to think white is iconic when it comes to its audio accessories, going all the way back to the original iPod, but as any Watch lover will tell you, we now live in an age of technology-as-fashion and white isn’t always going to be right, certainly not for everyone and absolutely not all of the time.
Maybe higher-end AirPods in silver and space gray, and new entry-level AirPods in all the XR colors?
On-board Hey Siri. You always have to be cautious when it comes to tiny batteries and always-on features, but moving the trigger word from the iPhone’s A-series to the AirPods W-series would likely boost performance enough to warrant it.
Over time, maybe the connection to Siri servers could move as well. That way, like Apple Watch, any time AirPods detect a Wi-Fi network they already know via iPhone, they could just send the query immediately. Of course, that kind of connectivity also opens AirPods up to on-device Apple Music, Podcasts, and Audio Books streaming, like Apple Watch.
The batteries are profoundly smaller, so the feature will likely take commensurately longer, but as much as Apple Watch has been called the real next-generation iPod, it’s actually AirPods that’ll eventually be best suited to that roll.
Basically, near-field versions of the far-field HomePod. Tiny computational audio buds for your ears.
AirPods 2: To be continued…
Apple sold the original AirPods for as close to cost as it could at introduction, giving up on its traditional hefty margins in order to help popularize the technology.
« What? They were too dumb expensive! » I can already imagine a lot of you rage typing into the comments. Well, no. The W1 chip, the sensors, and just getting so much tech into so small a package was « too dumb expensive ».
That’s why I think a range of AirPods from entry-level to higher end will eventually make sense, including the new over-the-ear headphones Apple is also rumored to be working on, and that I’m not quite so sure will be sold anywhere near cost.
But that’s the topic for another day…