Fast Forward: Apple Unleashed AirPods 3 & New Tier for Apple Music
What Apple’s latest product announcements tell us about its strategies in audio, AR, and smart home
Editor’s note: This is an abridged edition of our Fast Forward newsletter. For the full version, please contact our VP of Client Services, Josh Mallalieu (email@example.com) to send a request.
On Monday, Apple hosted its second fall product event, titled “Unleashed.” During this hour-long event, Apple nominally focused on two aspects of its sprawling business — music and the MacBook Pro. But as with most Apple events, Apple’s real ambitions lay elsewhere in the bigger picture. This time around, we here at the Lab are most intrigued by the new generation of AirPods, and the vast potential of hearable devices that Apple is about to unlock with its popular wireless earbud product.
In addition, Apple announced a Siri-operated subscription plan for Apple Music, more color options for HomePod Mini, and updated the MacBook Pro lineups with a new pair of souped-up Apple silicon chips, each with their own implications for the music streaming business, Apple’s smart home strategy, and Apple’s play for the Creator Economy, respectively. Let’s dig in!
Third-Gen AirPods: Smart Hearables to Bring Contextual Audio to Your Ears
Widely expected to be unveiled at last month’s iPhone 13 event, the third-generation AirPods (aka. AirPods 3) made a belated but welcomed debut at this week’s event. Blending the designs of regular AirPods and AirPods Pro, AirPods 3 feature a shorter stem and a larger in-ear shell, making them look similar to the Pro edition, just without the replaceable silicone ear tips that help the AirPods Pro achieve the noise cancellation-related functions.
Besides the design upgrade, Apple brought Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking to the flagship line of AirPods. A crucial differentiation previously limited to AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, this feature leverages AirPods’ motion-detecting accelerometers, along with the H1 processing chips, to deliver an immersive audio experience that clearly positions the listeners in a 3D aural environment, just as we do with sounds in a real-world environment.
In iOS 14, Apple added a set of APIs that taps into the motion sensors in AirPods Pro to enable head-tracking, letting developers build positional audio experiences that are aware of how the listener is moving their head. This is now also available in AirPods 3. Combined with Spatial Audio, this means that the new AirPods are fully capable of creating a 3D-positional audio experience that feels connected to the physical environment, no matter which direction the listener turns their head.
While this may seem like a cool feature for enjoying high-quality music recordings — and Apple is making it a big selling point for Apple Music — this capability of spatial awareness and directional head tracking will be crucial in developing Augmented Reality experiences. It is practically public knowledge that Apple sees AR as the next computing interface for the post-mobile era and is actively working on AR headsets and smart glasses to popularize them in the mass consumer market. In a way, Spatial Audio is like the audio version of the ARKit, enabling an aural experience that is crucial to establish a sense of presence and immersion in AR and, by extension, VR experiences.
To create a coherent AR experience, not only do the digital overlays need to be fully aware of our physical surroundings via computer vision and anchoring, the audio component also needs to be contextually aware to match the sound to the visuals. Moreover, in some use cases, such as in-car navigation or museum tours, audio-only AR experiences may be a preferable delivery method, in which case Spatial Audio will become the foundational tech for creating an augmented audio experience that orients you in your surroundings and guides your through it with contextual cues.
As gaming and AR advocate Em Lazer-Walker pointed out in a June 2020 Medium post, spatial AR audio also has the potential to unlock new types of interactive experiences that not only make mobile AR games like Pokémon Go more engaging, but also enable developers to “take design cues from live-action role-playing and immersive theatre design communities” to create new types of multi-sensory storytelling experiences.
AirPods Pro already has features like “announce messages with Siri” and “Transparency Mode” that offer us a glimpse of how AirPods would enable an always-on, ambient audio experience (the former of the two is now available on regular AirPods as well). For instance, some people are using AirPods as a hearing aid by activating an accessibility feature called “Live Listen” that amplifies speech sounds via the microphones on iPhones. Gradually, with new features added, AirPods will move out of the “wireless headphone” category and mature into the budding “hearables” category, which emphasizes computational and ambient audio experiences over regular listening.
In addition, compared to the previous generations, the AirPods 3 feature IPX4 level of sweat and water resistance, and pack more battery power to last longer (up to 6 hours per full charge), which means they can be worn for a longer period at a time, as well as in more weather conditions for outdoor usage, be it under the blazing sun or through chilly drizzles. Those may seem like inconsequential improvements, but they all directly factor into how “wearable” AirPods are — the more comfortable users would be with simply leaving the AirPods in their ears even when they are not actively trying to listen to anything, the more likely they are to be leveraged to deliver contextual audio cues in the future.
For brands, the growing popularity of AirPods and other wireless headphones/earbuds products should open up a new stream for innovative ideas. Audio is just as important as visuals in building a brand identity, and with smart assistants becoming a popular choice for the interface layer for non-personal devices, especially at home, it is time for brands to develop a voice strategy. That includes figuring out your audio brand identity, exploring what add-on value audio experiences could unlock for your customers, and integrating your voice strategy into your broader AR and connected home strategies to ensure compatibility.
Apple Music: New “Voice Plan” Aims to Capture Casual Listeners
Outside of the new AirPods, the other announcements from this Apple event have limited impact on consumer behavior; nonetheless, they are worthy of some analysis, for they clearly demonstrate the broader voice and smart home strategy that Apple is pursuing.
Starting with the new “Voice Plan” subscription tier for Apple Music, the Cupertino company foregrounds Siri in its audio experiences. Users will still be able to request a specific song on-demand, with full access to the Apple Music catalog, but they won’t have the ability to save songs to their own music library or create personal playlists. Another clear downside to this plan is that every request will have to go through Siri — although in public environments where issuing voice commands may seem awkward, the “text to Siri” accessibility feature may provide a clumsy workaround. Of course, its Siri-dependency also means this tier won’t be coming to any non-Apple device any time soon, although users will be able to use it in their cars via CarPlay.
Still, at just $4.99 a month, this Voice Plan undercuts all the other individual music streaming subscriptions in the market by almost half the monthly cost. And it is clearly positioned to capture casual music listeners who don’t care much about making playlists or maintaining a personal music library. They just want to find the perfect soundtrack for their daily lives, and for them, the voice plan would be a great fit. Users will be able to activate this subscription plan via Siri alone, which is notable for it marks the first time Apple has enabled any kind of voice purchasing via Siri.
Apple kicked off the event talking about various new playlists made for diverse contexts and moods: whether you are going on a hike, hosting a dinner party, or winding down for sleep, Apple Music has thousands of playlists tailored for different use cases, all of which are indexed by Siri and easily summonable via voice commands. This tier also emphasizes a hands-free listening experience designed for the HomePod Mini (more on that later), and it plays into Apple’s broader strategy to integrate Siri deeper into the interface layer across devices.
This is of course not exactly a new idea for music streaming services. Alexa users have long had free access to a limited library of two million songs via Prime Music, one of the many perks that the Prime membership offers (and very few people are using Alexa without a Prime membership). There’s also an Amazon Music Unlimited plan that offers Alexa users access to 75 million songs on a single Echo device for an additional $3.99 a month. And just like Amazon giving out free or low-cost music streaming options to make Echo speakers and the Prime membership more attractive, Apple is now doing the same thing, as it positions the Voice Plan as an entry-level service that could act as a loss-leader for its service bundle Apple One, aiming to acquire non-users into trying out its subscription services.
In addition, the current promotion of a six-month free trial of Apple Music for new and existing users of AirPods and select Beats headphones further indicates Apple’s strategy in using Apple Music as a lynchpin in its service bundle, as it is the Apple service with the widest audience reach. Plus, making this new affordable plan available in 17 global countries at launch will also help further scale Apple Music in some of the more price-sensitive markets. It is worth noting that those are the same markets where Apple is currently selling the HomePod Mini, which underlines the product-service fit between the device and the Voice Plan, (although it could be a nice fit for Apple Watch users as well). Apple wants Siri to play a more active role in its music experience as a way to promote usage, and in exchange, it is willing to cut profits and make a competitive offer.
HomePod Mini: New Color Options Reinforce Apple’s Multi-Room Strategy at Home
The new HomePod Mini is functionally the same as the previous generation, selling at the same price point of $99 — still a lot higher than the entry-level smart speaker products that competitors like Amazon and Google are offering. The main selling point that Apple is leaning into for its Siri-powered speakers this year is new color options, featuring eye-popping orange, yellow, and blue that aim to add a fun splash of color to the room. New color options may seem frivolous, but they are important to selling the multi-room angle that Apple envisions for the device. In a demo video, Apple took pains to emphasize that the ideal use case for the HomePod Mini is to have one for each main room of the house, strung together for multi-room control and serving as a family intercom system.
Shortly after the event, Apple refreshed its main website and introduced a new “TV & Home” section in the Apple.com menu bar, under which the HomePod Mini now resides, along with Apple TV set-top boxes and the Home app. While this reorganization seems to tease more home-oriented features to come for the HomePod Mini, for now, Apple’s overall approach towards the smart home remains rather casual, especially when compared to the more aggressive and experimental approach that Amazon is taking to conquer the home OS. Apple may not have a large market share when it comes to smart speakers, but that doesn’t mean Apple devices have no access points at home. On the contrary, we still use our mobile devices and laptops at home, and Siri is easily accessible from every iPhone, iPad, and increasingly, Apple Watch and the AirPods. In other words, Apple can easily leverage its lead in the mobile ecosystem to deliver voice experiences at home without having to sell smart speakers.
Furthermore, although the strategy of leading with cheap smart speakers and establishing “an Alexa or Google Assistant household” used to be a focal point of the smart home race, the impending rollout of the Matter IoT compatibility standard, which promises to create interoperability across all different smart home ecosystem (and by extension, voice assistants) at home, raises the question of whether Apple really needs to play the same game to get Siri into smart home devices. Eventually, there will come a time when most home appliances and gadgets are connected, and logically people will need a universal remote of sorts to control all of their connected at-home devices.
As a side note, it will be interesting to see if the implementation of Matter means that the aforementioned Voice Plan could be accessed and controlled via the proxy of other voice assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant. My gut says no, since the whole plan exists to promote Siri usage and sell HomePod Mini, but compatibility standards may just cover that as well, making it possible to route Siri requests via other voice assistants.
Regardless of Siri’s eventual footprint at home, it is important for brands to start thinking about how they can establish a presence on the various emerging touchpoints created by smart home devices to add value to the brand experience. To future-proof their place in the home, brands should explore the new media and shopping opportunities that mobile and connected home devices have made available, while also paying attention to potential partnerships with the key players in the home ecosystem. In short, brands need to start including the home as part of their omnichannel strategy to reach customers.
MacBook Pros: New M1 Chips Supercharge Creator Machines
The star of the “Unleashed” event is undoubtedly the two new Apple silicon chips — M1 Pro and M1 Max — that will be shipping with a redesigned lineup of MacBook Pro laptops. Apple brought out multiple graphs and charts and spent roughly 8 minutes detailing the superior processing power and power efficiency of their latest chipsets before it even unveiled the new MacBook Pro.
Although most consumer interactions and UGC creation have largely become mobile-oriented affairs, a lot of professional creators still rely on Apple’s Pro lineup of products to make a living. Apple specifically called out how quickly and frictionlessly the new chipset will be able to render 3D objects for real-time editing, which further reveals the AR interface that the company is building towards. Giving professional creators the tools they need to create the digital assets of tomorrow is a key strategy for Apple to affirm its brand identity as the default choice for creators.
What to Learn More?
If you are keen to learn more about Apple’s latest announcements and their brand implications, or simply to chat broadly about how to adapt to changing user interfaces and future-proof your brand strategies, the Lab is here to help. You can start a conversation by reaching out to Josh Mallalieu (firstname.lastname@example.org).