Apple AirPods: Innovative Tech Or A Nuisance?

When Apple announced at its September iPhone 7 launch that it was eliminating the headphone jack from its phones and the cord from its earphones in favor of AirPods, the bold move wasn’t entirely unanticipated. The internet had been brimming with rumors for weeks that the company was about to make a design change that, it appeared, few people wanted.
What was instantly clear in the wake of the announcement was the mood of Apple’s critics and devotees alike, who seemed to be collectively asking: why is this necessary? Though wireless headphones enabled by Bluetooth technology already exist, they have thus far been a high end, niche consumer item. By making this move at such scale, Apple has, according to some, “eradicated the most successful, most widespread and best-sounding audio standard in the world in favor of its own proprietary system.”
Indeed, the criticism has been loud and varied. Much came in the form of mocking after Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller declared why the company had made the change: “It comes down to one word,” Schiller said. “Courage. The courage to move on and do something better for all of us.”
Many interpreted this attitude as one of hubris, and one that could possibly hurt the brand over the long term. As one pundit put it, “Apple says its vision of the future of audio is wireless, and the AirPods are a key part of that future. Looking at the effortless pairing process and smart device-switching features, there’s a brilliance in their execution that no other wireless headphone can match. But between the tired EarPod design and the need to charge yet another gadget, they appear destined to inspire user frustration.”
But in the wake of all this loud criticism, it’s worth asking: could Apple be right? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Apple has released a consumer item onto the market with features that the consumer wasn’t necessarily ready for. Just consider their introduction of the touchscreen, the removal of the disk drive from the MacBook Air, or the entire concept of carrying a computer around in your pocket which doubles as a phone. All of these innovations are now things that are commonplace to technology users—and emulated by other manufacturers. So isn’t it possible that in a few years we will all be using cordless headphones and wondering what took us so long?
Some pundits certainly don’t think so, as they point out that Apple’s move from wires to wireless is not about improving functionality and sound quality, but rather superficial aesthetics. As Chris Taylor writing for Mashable put it, “This is in no way the equivalent of losing the CD drive or the 30-pin connector. There is no technological excuse for this. Music does not sound better over a Lightning cable. Nor does it sound better over Bluetooth, or the proprietary wireless technology Apple is using in its AirPods. There’s simply more audio information traveling over a wire than can travel over the air. Say it with me now: wired almost always sounds better than wireless.”
Indeed, what Taylor points to is the fact that all of Apple’s past innovations that seemed premature simply sped up an inevitable process. For example, as we all moved to the cloud and streaming, we stopped needing CDs, thus largely making the disk drive unnecessary. In the case of the audio cable, many aren’t convinced that wireless listening technology is strong enough yet to warrant this change without sacrificing quality. And yet others point to the loss of functionality by making this change. As Taylor said on Twitter: “So I can drop my iPhone 7 in the toilet, but I can’t charge it and use headphones at the same time?”
It remains to be seen whether Apple’s release of the AirPods will forever be the moment when the way we listen to music changed. But for now, it’s certainly a touchy subject.