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Why Silicon Valley is all wrong about Apple’s AirPods

So you think Apple is a tech company? No, you’re wrong.

In July of 1997, right before his return to Apple, Steve Jobs told BusinessWeek:

“The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore! Start over”.

Ten years later, building on the dripping sex and rock and roll of the iPod (touched with a Bono 💋 no less!), Jobs revealed the iPhone and changed computing forever.

Last week, Apple did it again, but for some reason, nearly everyone in Silicon Valley is confused about what just happened. I mean, I understand the confusion, but do people really think that the most significant announcement was the removal of the 3.5mm analog headphone jack? I mean, it was, but not for the reasons everyone’s panties seems to be bunched up about.

Apple doesn’t give a shit about neckbeard hipsters who spent thousands of dollars on expensive audiophile gear that rely on 100-year-old technology to transmit audio signals. They’ll readily drop them faster than Trump drops facts to make an argument in a televised debate.

Apple is securing its future, and to do that, it must continue to shrink the physical distance between its products and its customers’ conceptions of self. The ᴡᴀᴛᴄʜ came first, busting our sidekick supercomputer out of our pockets and onto our skin. Apple’s next move will put its products literally within earshot of our minds.

This is no accident.

How quickly we forget the past

In 2007, not only did Apple launch the iPhone, but they also changed their name from Apple Computer, Inc., to Apple Inc.

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“[A designer] has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This change was perhaps as big a deal as the iPhone itself, but it’s taken another decade for its implications to become clear.

Oops, did you blink and miss it? No problem. Apple made you a movie:

Maybe it’s still not clear to you. That’s ok, I’ll spell it out.

Repeat after me: Apple is not a technology company

The problem with Silicon Valley is Benedict Evans. I mean, not Benedict specifically, because he’s actually incredibly smart and holds sophisticated perspectives on the tech industry and adoption cycles, and also, he gives good tweets, but he’s not a product designer. And yet, we look to him and other folks of his ilk to understand Apple’s moves. But there are no users like Benedict Evans in the world, except in Silicon Valley, and as much as we like to think of Silicon Valley as the center of the universe, it’s not (aside to my SV friends: I know, I know, deep breaths).

While we live and breathe tech products, and love to play armchair product quarterbacks (side note: Product Hunt is the NFL of product design), we don’t represent the masses of normals. He and I like to indulge the fantasy that Apple makes things exclusively for us, but they obviously care way less about two Twitter-loving technophiles in Silicon Valley than they do about the rest of the world.

Thus when I consider who influences my thoughts on Apple’s moves, I need to be mindful of the Kool-aid I’m drinking, who’s making it, and what their lived context is. Do they represent the broader whole of humanity, or a narrow sliver of land on the West Coast of the United States of America?

So, then, why should you listen to me?

Who died and crowned me an expert? No one. I just kind of became an expert by virtue of the sheer number of hours I’ve spent on this stuff. Kind of like Benedict, but it’s also his job. But, I’m also kind of a fraud, like the rest of you. I grew up never fitting in with any crowd and never being popular, but I learned to observe people, and then chameleon myself into their cliques so I could feign belonging. It makes me a good faker and it makes me pretty good at listening to the words people use, but better at paying attention to what their behavior actually says. I’ve learned to differentiate how experts think about things from the way laypersons do, and how to discount each respective perspective accordingly (including my own, definitely including my own).

Most Silicon Valley pundits that we enjoy listening to or reading only reinforce our own over-developed, over-informed (and thus, unrepresentative) viewpoints. They say things that validate our shallow egos and make us feel less alone, like when they decry the death of the 3.5 mm analog jack as anathema. We tweet our adolescent angst in solidarity because it feels good to belong and to rage in unison, and because we recoil from physical affection from each other, we seek likes and retweets to soothe our wounded inner children because that kind of validation is the closest human connection to getting a hug that we’re willing to tolerate. And fuck yeah, Techmeme, thank you for showing me that I’m not alone!

But, I digress. What was I talking about?

Oh, right.

Apple is a fashion brand that makes jewelry that connects to the internet

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The thing that makes me crazy about Apple (and not in the fanboi sense) is that they both give a shit and don’t give a shit about what anybody else thinks, and what everyone else is doing.

Like, under Tim Cook, they’re a lot more “out there” and verbally responsive to customer complaints, but in a totally controlled and measured way. Not like Jobs didn’t write emails to customers, but Cook is a little faster and looser. A little. And from an industry perspective, Apple doesn’t seem to want to keep up with the Jones’s (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, et al), except when they do. For example, Samsung showcased a waterproof S7 back in February and then Apple followed suit in the iPhone 7. In other areas, however, Apple is out on their own. That’s where it’s worth paying attention, and that’s what brings us back to nixing the headphone jack with the one-two punch of a Lightning port coupled with Bluetooth audio.

Yes, others, from Slate to Chris Saad (1), have pointed out that this change is not about music, but about how Apple’s new AirPods will usher in the wonderful (and yet unproven) world of voice computing. And, I agree, but that perspective is insufficient to understand why Apple doing this is significant. It’s not like they’re the first. This image, though, helps:

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“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” — Steve Jobs

The thing is, we’ve had wireless headsets for a while, but they’ve always made people (mostly men) look like dickwads. They’re confusing to pair, and frustrating to use. And so if you’re willing to put up with them, you’re letting technology ruin your life. And so, you’re a dickwad.

Don’t take my word for it, look at this unlicensed “confident businessman with wireless headset” stock photo:

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“Confident Businessman With Wireless Headset”

Pure dickwad.

Poor guy.

Heck, even if you kind of look like Chris Hemsworth, you can’t really make a once state of the art wireless headset look like something you’d choose to adorn your pretty little head with:

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Not Chris Hemsworth. And is he wearing a lanyard? (source)

The reality is, the “Bionic Man” look isn’t really in, no matter how much utility these devices provide (I say this even as Bluetooth headphones sales eclipse the wired sort) or people attempt to get the design right. Yves Behar couldn’t make it happen when he partnered with Jawbone. I mean, would you choose to wear something like this on a hot date?

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The Jawbone Icon HD has a pairing guide.

Probably not if you wanted a second date, amirite?

But the EarPods, and now AirPods, for some reason* (*no, it’s a very specific reason), defeat this crisis of user acceptance. What Apple has done is produce something that isn’t a technology product, but is, rather, a fashion object—a piece of jewelry, an entertainment product, a status symbol, a genie in a bottle—that drips with sex appeal. I mean, that iPhone 7 launch video probably was directed by The Weeknd, because I want to watch it, Often, followed by a cold shower. 🚿

So, don’t confuse AirPods with just another Bluetooth headset; that’s not what they’re replacing. AirPods offer a new relationship because they’re alluring, sensuous, and sultry:

AirPods are sex sticks that fuck your ears.

(Hmm. Or maybe your ears spoon them? I can’t decide.)

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Two AirBuds after a hot session of ear fucking. Anyone got a 🚬?

Regardless, the fucking or the cuddling goes both ways, and if I’m saying anything, it’s that AirPods aren’t a technology device, but instead a way to get Her’s Scarlett Johansson character into your bed… errr… I mean, head because whatever is going on in this image, it’s the equivalent of what we all know actually takes place on Snapchat (or used to), except it’s happening between you and a bot named Siri:

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As you talk to Siri, she whispers sweet nothings into your brain

And this is what Apple can do that no one else can: make the behavior of talking to a disembodied entity on your face so socially acceptable that the voice computer revolution can finally get underway.

Nor are they starting from square one. They’ve already taught us to behave this way, even if we don’t realize it. How many times have you walked down the street talking to a colleague or family member on your EarPods? It’s normal. It’s not weird. Who cares if you’re talking instead to your robot overlord?

What sets AirPods apart is that they build on existing habits, require only slightly modified expectations on behalf of the user, and benefit from the wisdom of the phalanx of fashion luminaries that Apple has brought in-house over the past decade.

In contrast, here’s a weird product with no sex appeal which had no prior user adoption to build on and that was doomed to fail from the outset, no matter how many models showed up for the fashion walks:

Yeah, I’ll just leave that right there.

You can buy fashionable friends, and you can pay them to wear your stuff to make some photos, but you can’t get them to choose to wear what you’re offering in their real lives unless there’s a bridge to the familiar, essential, and down-to-earth.

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AirPods build on the success of the iPod, which is related to the story of Napster and taking on the record industry, saying “Fuck you!” to Metallica (especially to Lars), putting 1,000 songs in your pocket, the clickwheel, trading 128kbps MP3s in internet forums, suffering through dial-up download speeds, Firewire, USB, and basically punk rock. AirPods are legit like Richard Branson because they’ve been around forever and yet they’re still new and cool as fuck.

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I like his typography

Patience is a virtue lost on Silicon Valley

Here in Silicon Valley, we’re a bunch of inchoate Peter Pans, which affects how we approach relationships, how we design, build, and grow apps, and it affects our ability to relate to the people that use the things we make (because everything we make is soooo important, magical, revolutionary, changing the world, solving world hunger, making life less demanding by making everything available on-demand). Somehow (maybe it was the acid trip Jobs went on), Apple learned to take their time with products, and to pace their product evolution. They seem slow at times, but maybe it’s just because they resist the short-sighted approach that most tech companies feel forced to take to try to get ahead. That means most tech companies struggle to fully understand the problems they’re solving, and don’t stop to saddle up alongside their users to develop empathy—to really understand what their users are willing to put up with and what they never will.

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An iPod ad from 2008 (Source)

Apple began the journey of promoting user acceptance of technology apparatuses as fashion accessories with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, fifteen years ago.

You can hear it when Jobs explains why he decided to pursue music in the first place: he knew it was universal and represented a huge addressable market in which there was no market leader. He also knew that everyone loved music, and that their personal, emotional relationships with music would give him the opening he needed to send in the  ᴛʀᴏᴊᴀɴ ʜᴏʀsᴇ to permeate their lives for a generation.

And now, by exploiting that same relationship, Apple is doing it again: offering a sexy fashion statement, an expensive luxury item, an entertainment accessory, which will usher in the era of voice-controlled intimate computing. Apple won’t sell the AirPods by enumerating their tech specs but by evoking an emotional, aspirational response—which is an approach vividly different from nearly anything else that comes out Silicon Valley’s burgeoning nerdtopia.

When we decry the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley (and yes, Apple absolutely should examine its own house), we should remember that true diversity is complex with many dimensions. The broad, eventual appeal of AirPods come from the diversity of talent working behind the scenes to bring this product to life—beyond the engineering and industrial design—which includes disciplines from marketing to retailing to storytelling to fashion, as well as the disciplinary will to resist shipping shit products. A diversity of perspectives had to be brought together to make this product happen in this moment, with this narrative, with the relatively reserved emphasis on Siri.

No, people aren’t quite ready for the conversational software world of the future — but that’s okay, because, guys, Apple’s on it, and they’ve got plenty of time to get it right. And I hope you understand what Apple’s up to a little bit better now.

Chris reads every response on Medium or reply on Twitter, so don’t hesitate to let him know what you think .

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Written by

Inventor of the hashtag. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Previously: Google, Uber, Molly (YC W18).

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