Apple’s big Special Event last week was marked by a noticeable lack of excitement in the days running up to it. A few years back, everyone would have been on tenterhooks, but it seems that it’s increasingly becoming a so-what event. If you use Google Trends to search for the word iPhone, you’ll find that it used to peak around these events, but they’re no longer generating the level of interest that they used to. If you filter those searches down to news mentions, it’s apparent that these Apple events are not really news anymore.
There’s growing speculation that Apple will be launching their next generation of AirPods sometime this year, so I thought it would be interesting to try to predict what might be in their next generation of earbuds. The hearables market is moving very quickly and there’s no shortage of technology for Apple to choose from. But the AirPods are a little different to anything else that Apple has ever brought to market.
The biggest difference is the way it has changed their development model. Historically, Apple is a follower. They don’t invent product categories – they wait for other major companies to create the market, then come in with a slicker product which delights customers. They concentrate on everything which is needed for people to feel that Apple invented the experience. After that, they create clear water between themselves and their competitors by constantly increasing the level of delight. The AirPod is arguably the first product where Apple have made the market themselves. There was a smattering of crowdfunded earbuds before the AirPods were announced, but they were only shipping in tens of thousands. In contrast, AirPods are shipping in the millions. For once, Apple wasn’t competing with established industry giants, but small, often poorly funded startups. That’s what makes the question of what might be in an AirPod 2 or AirPod 3 so interesting.
It should have been a good Christmas for Apple. Millions of happy Apple fans were likely to unwrap one of their products on Christmas Day. But just a week before, Apple got a present it really didn’t want. The news broke that they had been releasing updates which slowed down the performance of older phones.
The reason for doing this is that as lithium batteries age, their performance gets worse. If you keep on putting the same demands on them, there is a double risk – they may degrade faster and need to be replaced, or in an extreme case, they could fail, possibly disastrously. So, there is a definite logic in trying to limit those demands to keep the user physically safe.
However, it’s a difficult concept to sell. Consider if an automotive manufacturer were to do the same thing with your electric car. If you bought the car on the basis that it had a top speed of 80 mph and a range of 200 miles, you’d probably be rather irate if, twelve months later, you discovered that they’d decided to restrict the top speed to 35mph, in order to ensure that the range didn’t fall below 200 miles. But that’s what the headline claims against Apple are implying – that unbeknownst to the users, software updates are deliberately throttling back the phone’s performance. The electric car example above is not a valid comparison, but to understand why requires a level of technical knowledge that few journalists or lawyers possess. They’d rather cast Apple as the villain, turning this into an Applegate conspiracy. Viva fake news.
On 7th September, Apple announced the demise of the 3.5mm audio jack. Alongside that, they introduced their Airpods, helping to stoke the momentum for a new world of hearable devices, The loss of the jack was a move which generated howls of anguish from the wireophile community, along with a flurry of speculation about how Airpods worked as well as what Apple’s new W1 wireless chip was doing.
Having been working with wireless standards and hearables for several years, much of that speculation seemed ill-informed. Once Airpods come to market in October, companies like iFixit and Chipworks will take them to pieces and we’ll have a better idea of exactly what Apple have done. But those first tear-downs are still a few months away. So I thought it would be interesting to try a speculative teardown, based on how I might have designed them, and on the limited information which is in the public domain. I also think I know what Apple’s second wireless chip will be, and it’s not the W2.
Last week, after several years of build-up and hype, the world had the opportunity to place their pre-orders for the Apple Watch. It hasn’t generated the queues outside stores that have come to typify recent Apple releases, and despite some options “selling out” we have no idea what that means in terms of total numbers ordered, as supply is obviously constrained. Slice Intelligence reckon that over a million people signed up on launch day, but I suspect that’s over-optimistic. Nor I am I convinced by other analysts predicting sales of 19 million this year. However, over the course of the rest of this year I expect several million people around the world will spend between $349 and $20,000 each to acquire one. It will be the start of an interesting experiment which is far more than just about what we wear on our wrist. I see it as a similar, but larger scale experiment along the same lines as Google Glass, albeit a much lower risk one in terms of social acceptance. But it is still an experiment. To succeed it will need to change user behaviour – it’s not enough that it’s just a new Apple toy.
It may turn out to be an experiment which will indicate whether our love affair with the smartphone has a best-before date. That may seem an odd statement, but we’re already seeing some interesting feedback from people who have had the opportunity to trial the Apple Watch. Matthew Panzrino at Techcrunch has interviewed a number of these, reporting that the biggest recurring theme from those lucky few is how little they use their iPhone once you have an Apple watch. People he spoke to that have worn the Apple Watch said that they take their phones out of their pockets far, far less than they used to. One user told him that they “nearly stopped using their phone during the day; they used to have it out and now they don’t, period”.
Last month at the Apple presentation Kevin Lynch echoed the same point remarking that “you can put your iPhone down when you get home – you don’t need to have it with you all of the time”. For the VP of Technology at Apple to say that sounded almost heretical, but it highlighted an important point – Apple connectivity products, like the iPhone and Apple TV could become invisible hubs for connectivity to more personal products which Apple may produce in the future. That could have an important bearing on the way we use smartphones.
Apple is doing a lot of interesting things in its product ranges and we’ve yet to see how they fit together, or what that will mean for the future of the Apple ecosystem. But it’s important to get past the hardware and understand how they could work as an ecosystem to change behaviour. This is my view of where the iPhone may be going.
I’ve just sat through Tim Cook’s Apple announcement, and amongst the shiny stuff was something really important – ResearchKit. Most smartphone users probably don’t realise how much data their devices are capturing all of the time, or that some of it is quietly being used to influence apps such as the games they play. The point is, that for the first time ever, aspects of our health and lifestyle can be captured easily. For medical researchers, access to this personal data could transform the way we perform research on disease and aging. Even where research projects are able to monitor patients today, the sensors are often unwieldy and it’s difficult to get volunteers to sign up and stay engaged. To be effective, medical research needs data – not just from ill people, but from those at all stages of the continuum of health and illness. The issue has always been how to get hold of it.