Apple AirPods: Designing future personal technology

I just switched to Android because I was so hyped up by the OnePlus 3 phenomenon. I love the phone, by the way, and I’m still using it today. Some days a go, my father called and told me to get the iPhone 7 because he was worried that my OnePlus 3 would burn me alive, seeing all those Samsung phones caught on fire several times. To him, there is only one Android phone manufacturer and it’s Samsung.

Am I going to get that shiny, new iPhone 7 Plus in black (not jet black)? Most likely not.

I love my OnePlus 3. It’s a refreshing experience to spend time rebuilding my workflow around Android and Mac. I’m using all the Google services, anyway. Yet, the biggest reason why I’m not getting the iPhone 7 Plus is the fact that I’m one of those nerds who take hardware design seriously. I want an overhaul redesign of iPhone, yet this year iteration of Apple’s most important money-making product fails to deliver that. I’m not necessarily sad. After all, I save a lot of money sticking to my current OnePlus 3. Plus, I’m too busy with my PhD dissertation to care about getting the latest and greatest iPhone. So no iPhone for me, at least until next September.

But I do want to join the conversation about the removal of the legacy 3.5 mm audio jack. Apparently, it is a huge controversy among many, many Apple’s loyal customers.

“Analog audio is the best audio quality,” says most who blame Apple for removing the 3.5 mm audio jack from its latest iPhones, and for forcing the industry towards the lower-quality wireless audio. It is a legitimate complaint. But is it necessarily true?

Obviously, analog audio is uncompressed audio for any headphones, so the quality of the sound sent to any wired headphones is the exact quality of the sound file. In the world of wireless audio sadly, there are compressed standards applied to the original sound files to meet the wireless bandwidth. Apple’s new, weird-looking, Bluetooth-based AirPods and all other branded Bluetooth headphones suffer from the compressed audio quality when trying to go wireless.

But again, this is Apple we are talking about here. The company has the scaling influence that can ripple through any industries it touches. If Apple wants the audio industry to focus on wireless, it usually gets it done given some time. History shows consistent cases that Apple forces in technologies it believes to be mainstream. Mouse, floppy disk, USB, optical disc drive, USB Type-C are some of the examples. Apple always bets on technologies that, it thinks, have a good future and it’s usually right about it. The company’s iconic founder, Steve Jobs, explains Apple’s philosophy and strategy in choosing technologies very well in the following video.

This means other smartphone and headphones manufacturers will follow suit, and most importantly, the open-standard Bluetooth technology is forced to innovate faster to provide analog-grade wireless audio quality. Worth noticing is that Bluetooth is at its fourth generation (4.1) now, and most people find Bluetooth 4.1 wireless audio indistinguishable from the traditional analog wired audio. While Bluetooth audio is still technically inferior to analog audio, it is going to get better, and Apple’s removal of the 3.5 mm analog audio jack is a major move to drive that Bluetooth innovation pace.

While presumably contributing to faster innovation of Bluetooth technology, Apple’s audio-jack-less iPhones are not intended to downgrade audio quality. The Lighting port provides as good, if not better, audio quality as the 3.5 mm audio jack. In fact, the Lightning port, though few know it, has the ability to provide lossless, uncompressed, high-resolution audio in digital format to external devices. If high-resolution audio files (not MP3 and AAC) are compatible with and played on iPhones, the sound that comes from the Lightning port has the best possible quality.

The problem with having no 3.5 mm audio jack is, then, not about the audio quality. It’s about the convenience of accessing and experiencing high-quality sound via the Lightning port. People need to have Lightning adapters for their 3.5 mm headphones or Lightning-supported headphones, and headphones makers have to license the proprietary Lightning interface from Apple. It’s a difficult transition. For the 3.5 mm audio port, it has been the universal, open-standard audio interface for over a century. All media devices support the 3.5 mm audio interface. Period.

But who knows? Lightning can be the next standardized, wired audio interface for high-quality, lossless, uncompressed audio experience. Apple has been known to have scaling influence as discussed earlier. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely going to happen. First, Lightning is not an open standard, which means no one can use it without Apple’s permission or license. Second, Apple doesn’t seem to be interested in upgrading wired audio experience as it hasn’t shown interest in supporting high-resolution audio formats like FLAC and ALAC in its music player and streaming service “Apple Music” yet, at least at the moment.

However, Apple is clearly pushing for wireless audio, despite having to sacrifice the sound quality for the sake of the convenience of wireless.

Opposing camp would say Bluetooth has not been very convenient, anyway. Connecting a pair of Bluetooth headphones to a device or multiple devices is a pain. Apple sees the same problem, and tries to solve the Bluetooth pairing inconvenience with an in-house chip dubbed “W1.” W1 is built into each of the AirPods, allowing it to seamlessly connect with all Apple devices with close proximity, and to automatically switch between them based on whichever Apple device the user is on. W1 improves the very nature of Bluetooth.

Looking at the big picture, W1-equipped AirPods project a much more significant future of personal technology beyond just mere wireless audio.

Apple is clearly working to build something grand, a complete ecosystem of personal technology that has AirPods-based Siri as a unified command center.

The design of AirPods indicates an always-in-ear norm. Each AirPod has subtle shape, independent battery, W1 chip and microphone. Each AirPod is by itself a computer, probably the smallest one Apple has ever made. Users may choose to have one in their ear at all times, thus enabling them to activate instant interaction with Siri whenever they need.

Interacting with Siri through AirPods (or one of them) is the most natural, comfortable and personal voice interaction with an artificial-intelligence (AI) personal assistant. There is no need to scream at and try to listen to a speaker across the room like using Amazon Echo and Google Home. Also, talking with Siri on AirPods is much quicker, more private and in overall more convenient than calling out Siri through iPhone, Apple Watch, Apple TV remote and Mac. The key is AirPods are always in the users’ ears. To put in context, it is like Iron Man/Tony Stark who has his AI assistant, Jarvis, in his ear ready to do things for him at any time.

The next question is: What can Siri do? Obviously not as much as Jarvis, but she is getting better and appears in all places across Apple ecosystem of computer, phone, watch, TV, home and soon rumored electric, self-driving car.

Imagine this scenario. You walk with an iPhone in your pocket and AirPods in your ears. You are pretty much able to ask Siri to do as many things as Amazon Echo: fact, arithmetic, music, calendar, to-do, reservation and the like. Then, when you walk into your living room, you ask Siri through AirPods to navigate your Apple TV. Your friend texts you while you are binge-watching Game of Thrones, so you ask Siri to read the text into your ears via AirPods. Turns out the text is a link to a collaboration on a Keynote presentation. You head towards your Mac to work on the presentation. You need some photos, so you ask Siri to search for them. You pick a few photos from Siri’s results and use them in the presentation. Once you finish, you realize you have a dinner date, so you tell Siri through AirPods that you are going out. Siri turns your Mac off, puts your entire house in lockdown mode (lights off, curtains closed, and door locked), and brings your Apple self-driving car from the garage to the driveway.

The idea is you control your computer, phone, watch, TV, house, and car by giving commands to Siri through AirPods that are always in your ears.

AirPods are the essential missing piece of the world of wireless interaction with personal technology through an AI personal assistant. That is the big picture. If people look at this big picture, they might not be so upset about losing the 3.5 mm jack, in my opinion. Apple has seen that big picture and it has gathered—in its own word—the “courage” to get closer to bring to people the ultimate world of wireless interaction with personal technology.

For those who complain about the bad wireless audio quality, get a pair of good Lightning headphones or wait for Bluetooth audio to get better. AirPods are not meant to make profits. They are tiny computers designed for an amazing future of personal technology. It’s almost a certainty that AirPods will come in the box with future generations of iPhone.

Let me know what you think? Are you still really upset about the removal of the 3.5 mm audio jack after hearing these points of view about wireless audio and AirPods?

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