In just over a week we have heard rumors that both Amazon and Microsoft Surface might be bringing wireless earbuds to the market. This should be no surprise to anyone, but not for the reason that most highlight which is: wanting into some of Apple’s action with AirPods.
There is no question about Apple’s success with AirPods. Apple managed to get AirPods across gender, age, and even income level despite their price point not putting them in the “most affordable” category. The experience is described by many as magical. In a study, we, at Creative Strategies, conducted with Experian when AirPods first came out, customer satisfaction was the highest for a new product from Apple. 98% of AirPods owners said they were very satisfied or satisfied. Remarkably, 82% said they were very satisfied. By comparison, when the iPhone came out in 2007, it held a 92% customer satisfaction level, iPad in 2010 had 92%, and Apple Watch in 2015 had 97%.
Assuming Microsoft and Amazon are just after the revenue that a good set of wireless earbuds could generate is a little shortsighted.
Voice and Ears
Ambient computing and voice-first are certainly big drivers for both Microsoft and Amazon. As computing power is spread out across devices and digital assistants are helping to bridge our experience across them, voice has grown in importance as an interface. Many consumers are, however, less comfortable shouting commands across a room or speaking to technology outside the “safety” of their own home. As voice moves into the office, the need and desire to be able to speak quietly to an assistant and hear it back is even more evident.
Wireless earbuds that can be worn comfortably throughout the day allow us to build a better relationship with our assistants and, even more so, build our reliance. Interestingly, I would argue, this is where AirPods have not been as successful as Apple might have hoped for but certainly, through no fault of their own but more due to some limitations Siri has.
For both Alexa and Cortana, who do not have a smartphone they can call their own home, wireless earbuds are a great way to be with a user in a more direct and personal way rather than being relegated into an app. As I often say, this is not about consumers having only one assistant but making the assistant they use more often more intelligent and therefore creating a vicious circle: the more I use it, the more it gets better, the more I want to use it.
Eyes and Ears
Aside from voice and ambient computing, another trend that will benefit wireless earbuds is augmented reality. Starting with phones, consumers can build on the habit of wearing wireless earbuds while consuming information through their phones. Creating a habit and making wearing wireless earbuds natural rather than bearing the stigma that Bluetooth headsets had when they first came to market.
In a non-distant future, as we see more use cases focusing on displaying information across apps and we will move from phones to glasses, wireless earbuds will play an even more critical role in our augmented reality experience.
No Longer an Accessory
Whether they are critical to our relationship with a digital assistant or they help us immerse in an augmented reality experience, what is clear is that headsets overall are no longer an accessory but a device in their own right that for many vendors will grow into a platform.
Sensors already allowed headsets, whether buds, over the ear or on the ear to become smart to improve user experience, like when detecting if you are wearing them or not to determine if you want to pick up an incoming call from the phone or the headset. Plantronics and Jabra have had these kinds of features for years. Improvements in miniaturization added functionalities that turned some earbuds into wearables, or hearables devices, if you prefer. Devices that can track full workouts like the Bragi Dash. Considering the great work Microsoft had done with Band (not so much on the hardware but capabilities) they could even think beyond Cortana and leverage some of that know-how to deliver a fully-fledged hearable solution increasing stickiness and return on investment.
I would not be surprised if Apple considered the role AirPods or Power Beats Pro could play as a wearable device as an alternative to Apple Watch for those users who do not want to wear a watch but are interested in fitness tracking. I would also expect Samsung to consider a “sport” or “active” version of their Galaxy Buds to cater to a similar market.
AirPods have certainly become the benchmark for wireless earbuds in the same way iPhone has been the benchmark in the smartphone market. The “AirPods killer” is the earbuds’ version of the “iPhone killer” in the smartphone segment. Yet, I find that when it comes to wireless earbuds, there is much more dynamism in what brands can deliver and how they differentiate building on what their core competencies are, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, which will make it harder to compare like for like.