The Apple Watch is now bigger than the iPod ever was. As the most popular watch of all time, it’s clear that the watch is a new market success story. However it isn’t a cultural success. It has the ability to signal its presence and to give the wearer a degree of individuality through material and band choice but it is too discreet. It conforms to norms of watch wearing and it is too easy to miss under a sleeve or in a pocket.
Not so for AirPods. These things look extremely different. Always white, always in view, pointed and sharp. You can’t miss someone wearing AirPods. They practically scream their presence.
For this reason wearers, whether they want to or not, advertise the product loudly. Initially, when new, they looked strange, even goofy. But the product’s value to the wearer overcame any embarrassment and for those courageous enough to wear them, they became a point of pride. As all things distinctive enough, the distinction rubs on the user and that distinction begets new users and new distinction, and so on. So now we have a bona fide cultural phenomenon.
I have both my son and parents angling to get these things. I have not seen this universal appeal recently, even for the watch. You have to explain the watch. The AirPods explain themselves. The only thing which AirPods do remind me of is the original iPod. The iPod-and-white-earbuds had a similar signal/function ratio. Looks distinctive, works well, nails the job to be done and is self-describing. The “iconification” of white was the phenomenon of its decade.
One wonders how much of this behavior is by design or, more precisely, engineered by designers. Did Jony Ive’s team plan on users “flexing” with their AirPods? Did they make them distinctive on purpose with the stalks pointing down vs,, for example, wrapping around the back of the ear for a more discreet look? Was it just good luck and the form followed function? It’s hard to imagine that taste could be engineered but here we are.
Whether planned or not, the newest AirPods offer a functional upgrade with no visual upgrade. This is noteworthy because whatever they got right with the original design they decided not to mess with it. You can’t tell if someone is wearing the newest AirPods or the originals.
As far as the added functionality it is typical Apple: faster connections due to a new chip, longer talk time, longer listen time, voice-activated Siri and wireless charging. Broadly speaking they are just better in ways that need to better and not better in ways they are good enough.
The product is part of the “wearables” category at Apple which includes watch and is growing almost 50%/yr. and not from a small base either. The following graph show the history of the segment since 2009 (before the iPod peaked).
As can be seen, Wearables and Home segment grew out of the iPod segment, through “Other” products and is now almost double what the iPod used to be alone.
It should be noted that the AirPods can be paired directly with the Apple Watch and used independent from the iPhone. If not from this point alone, culturally the iconic white AirPods and jewel-like Apple Watch embody the spirit of the iPod.