Apple is widely expected to announced a competing product to Amazon Echo and Google Home tomorrow at WWDC. Smart speakers are all about giving consumers access to a company’s voice assistant. Many people don’t realize that Apple AirPods already provide access to Siri in an always-available fashion. AirPods make Siri even more available and versatile in many ways than Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Last week, I outlined how AirPods are remarkably popular with users and are central to Apple’s voice assistant portfolio strategy regardless of when a Siri smart speaker hits the market. An in-ear voice assistant is a different user experience from a smart speaker or just using your smartphone. Thankfully, Creative Strategies conducted a recent survey of Apple AirPods users that sheds light on the in-ear voice assistant experience. I have also been evaluating AirPods for about two months and have some thoughts to share. I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea until David Beisel of NextView Ventures explained how central they were to Apple’s Siri strategy. I decided to give them a try. I’m glad I did.
How People View Apple AirPods as a Product
As you can see in the chart below, consumers think highly about Apple AirPods from just about every perspective. They charge quickly, follow Apple’s tradition of great design and are comfortable.
The battery life is also very good. This is particularly interesting since each AirPod ear piece has full functionality. That means the Bluetooth and other processing is being done in both AirPods simultaneously. Wireless headsets traditionally have one ear piece with processing and Bluetooth connectivity and the other is simply tethered through a wire but has no significant power requirements. The fact that Apple has created such small ear pieces with this design and good battery life is notable.
Won’t You Lose Your AirPods? No.
One of the most frequent product criticisms after the AirPod launch was that people would lose the devices. They are small and bound to fall out the general thinking went. Well, consumers don’t seem to have an issue with this. Ninety-three percent said the AirPods fit securely in their ears: “AirPods don’t fall out.”
In two months of regular use I can only think of two times when my AirPods fell out. Both were issues where I rubbed the side of my face and accidentally hit the AirPod post causing it to come loose. Jason Calacanis, the host of the This Week in Startups podcast, was raving recently about how he can move from his desk to the treadmill and then the kitchen and his AirPods remain securely in his ears. His comment in a recent blog post said,
They don’t fall out (at least for me and the majority of users).
Another friend of mine told me how one AirPod fell out when he slipped on some black ice in downtown Boston and wound up on his back. It was a hard fall, but one AirPod stayed in place anyway. He couldn’t initially find the other AirPod, but realized later that it was in his shirt collar. Problem avoided. “That could have been an expensive fall,” said Michael Princi, founder of ThoughtStorm Strategic Capital. However, Apple has a new way to help you keep track of your AirPods as well. The company recently enabled Find my iPhone support for AirPods. A great idea and it actually works.
People Think AirPods Are Comfortable
Fit and comfort are critical for anything going into your ear. The survey respondents rated AirPods at 95% for comfort. I know of a few people with ear shapes that just don’t accommodate the AirPod product shape. This appears to be a small percentage of humans. Apple updated their wired earpiece design with the introduction for the iPhone 5. If those fit you well, the AirPods should work fine too. The Creative Strategies survey found:
Only 4.6% of AirPods owners who participated in the study said they were dissatisfied with the fit and ability to fit snugly.
This finding aligns with my own experience. Once I put the AirPods in, I typically have them in for hours. You forget they are there.
How People Use Apple AirPods
Two other findings from the survey were notable. Eighty-four percent of users suggested that they sometimes use just one AirPod. All wireless headphones eventually run out of battery. If you are on the phone all day, AirPods will require a recharge. However, Mr. Princi told me that he regularly uses just one at a time. He leaves the other in the charging case. When an AirPod runs low on battery, he simply swaps them out and recharges the other. You don’t get the full stereo experience, but for conference calls this is not an issue.
A second finding is that 62% of users surveyed said they consume more audio content now that they use AirPods. Again, when you have ear pieces in all of the time, it makes sense to consume audio content. Audio is immediately accessible every moment.
It’s Strange Talking to Siri While Out in Public
A downside of AirPods is using Siri while out in public. While you might get an occasional curious (or condescending) glance walking around with AirPods, the more awkward situation is asking Siri for something in the presence of others. That is where smart speakers and ambient voice assistant access have a big advantage. You are asking for and receiving information and you expect everyone in the general area to hear both the request and response. AirPods provide a personal experience and uttering a Siri request that people hear, but they don’t hear the response is a bit strange. It is as if you are asking a question and keeping the answer all to yourself.
This isn’t an issue with AirPods per se. Any in-ear solution that leverages voice for input and headphones for output will face a similar situation. Sensory CEO Todd Mozer told me in February that his company will be providing VoiceGenie connectivity to Alexa through Bluetooth devices soon. Using in-ear voice assistant access is simply a new use case that people will learn to employ and determine what mode of input is best.
The 13 Best Apple AirPod Features
- Instant Pairing: When you unbox your AirPods and open the lid, they automatically pair with your iPhone. There is no need to pair through the Settings > Bluetooth.
- Easily Pair with Other Apple Devices: It is easy to pair AirPods with a MacBook Pro and other Apple devices. This comes in handy when you are joining an online meeting and want to use the internet to connect instead of your phone.
- Non-Apple Device Support: These are not for Apple products only. You have more features when using them with Apple products but AirPods will also pair as Bluetooth headphones with Android and other devices.
- View Battery Life: When you open the AirPods charging case, it shows you the battery life on your iPhone screen for each AirPod and the charging case. Simple, easy and helpful feature.
- The AirPods Case is Your Charger: The case that you store your AirPods in doubles as a remote charger. You can also charge the case while using your AirPods.
- You Can Use One AirPod at a Time: As mentioned above, you can use one AirPod at a time and have the other charging in the case so you always have an AirPod fully charged when you need it.
- AirPods Recharge Quickly: If you do need to recharge both AirPods in the case, it only takes about 15 minutes to get several hours of listening time. Apple says that will translate into about 1 hour of talk time.
- The Battery Life is Very Good: Apple says you get about five hours of listening time and two hours of talk time per charge. That seems about right in my experience. With a fully charged case, you can get about 24 hours of listening time before you need to plug in. Impressive.
- Activation / Deactivation Tone: When you put the AirPods in your ear, you hear a short tone that confirms they are ready for use. Apple calls this “automatic ear detection.” When you remove them, you hear another tone. This is a small feature but a good one that lets you know when they are active or if they are not.
- Audio Automatically Stops When You Remove AirPods: A great little feature is that you don’t have to stop your audio such as music or podcasts when you remove AirPods from your ears. It stops automatically. The audio then starts automatically when you place the AirPods back into your ears. This is a nice implementation of the automatic ear detection technology.
- Automatically Switches Calls to Your Handset When You Remove AirPods: This feature works on iPhone and I assume on other devices as well. When you remove the AirPods from your ear during a call, it automatically switches audio and microphone to your handset. When you place them in your ear it automatically switches back.
- You can double-tap an AirPod to access Siri or control audio: You can select whether a double-tap of the AirPod activates Siri or starts and stops your audio content. Your choice. I use the latter since I can simply say, “Hey Siri” to activate the voice assistant.
- Find My iPhone: The integration with find my iPhone is great. You can supposedly see where your AirPods are geographically (although I haven’t had this work in practice) and activate an audible tone (I can confirm that this does work) so you can find them with your ears when they are not anywhere in sight.
As you can see, there are a lot of features to recommend AirPods. In fact, it’s not that one feature stands out. AirPods provide a good user experience by combining many small features. Calacanis in his blog post justifiably lamented the many recent Apple product missteps but had this to say:
Airpods, the most gloriously elegant, addicting and game-changing product that Apple has produced since the iPad. – Jason Calacanis
Two Complaints About AirPods
I do have two complaints about my AirPods. First, the AirPods sometimes inexplicably shut off during calls. The automatic ear detection thinks they have been removed. My experience is not unique as I learned when consulting an Apple support forum when researching the issue. In fact, over 1,200 people have confirmed they have this same issue in the forum. The original post said:
AirPods pair correctly with iPhone 6s Plus (iOS 10.2) and randomly during the call, they get disconnected. The BT connection gets lost and I have to connect them again manually. Happens several times during long calls with no apparent pattern. The AirPods are fully charged…The strange thing is that while listening to music, this problem doesn’t show up, only on phone calls.
There are several troubleshooting suggestions. However, it doesn’t seem to happen since I upgraded to iOS 10.3.2 so maybe it is resolved. Either way, it goes to show that Apple doesn’t always ship product without bugs. We have all learned that over the past several years. But, there is one issue that is bigger…
Siri Just Isn’t Good Enough…Yet
AirPods happen to be wonderful Bluetooth earphones. However, we started this conversation talking about voice assistants. On this front, Siri comes up short. Siri is good for transactional interactions such as starting and stopping audio content, placing a phone call, recording a note or launching an app. She also has HomeKit integration with several smart home automation products and can perform searches, but is very limited in scope of capabilities in general. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have these same capabilities and can do much, much more.
It comes down to the AI. Not the speech recognition AI. For natural language processing (NLP), Siri is now very good. Maybe not as good as Alexa and Assistant today, but good enough. It is the AI for natural language understanding (NLU) and ability to handle more complex or unanticipated queries where Siri really comes up short. Siri is good with a small set of programmatic commands, but just isn’t as versatile as its peers today. That has really surprised everyone because Siri really invented the category when it launched in 2011.
Everyone is anticipating the Apple smart speaker launch this week to see how it will compare with Amazon Echo and Google Home. The bigger news will likely be what improvements are expected from Siri. A smart speaker with better audio quality isn’t a long-term play. Upgrading Siri to be a better voice assistant will be critical for the long-term utility of all Apple products, including your AirPods.