In classic Apple fashion, the AirPod wireless earphones were launched with a generous heaping of hyperbole last year. The universal headphone jack was, according to Apple, out of date, and it was time we all got on the wireless bandwagon — with those pearly-white cigarette stub lookalikes serving as our ticket to the future. I very much doubted the $159 AirPods, and I was certainly put off by Apple’s haughty presentation, but user feedback appears to be proving me wrong. One survey published this week reports 98 percent of AirPod buyers have been satisfied with their purchase, many even saying they liked the earphones more than they thought they would.
That leads me to the topic of this article, which is about heeding the important feedback and discarding the noise. Just as inevitable as the Apple hype is the corresponding wave of counter-hype. Apple: it’s magical. Vlad: it would take real magic to see me with these in my ears. Both of those things are examples of noise: you’ll never hear a company launch a new product with anything but the most positive articulations of its revolutionary nature, and whatever I or any other critic have to say before they’ve tried the product is based mostly on conjecture and should be treated as such. The way a thing feels once you start using it is far more important than the way it looks, and any person’s opinion on a product grows more valuable and reliable with the length of time they’ve used it.
At the heart of the AirPods’ appeal is convenience. Bluetooth headphones have existed for years, the Bragi Dash and others did the fully-wireless thing before Apple, and you could buy superior (but wired) sound quality at a fraction of the AirPods’ price. But being first or cheapest with a particular technology is a “how it looks” consideration, whereas convenience, the thing Apple consciously prioritized, is a matter of “how it works.” To put it another way, most companies focus on making a product that’s appealing to buy, whereas Apple’s not-to-secret magic has been in devising ones that are appealing to use.
Before the AirPods, the Apple Watch was another device out of Cupertino that was greeted with a lukewarm critical reception but elicited overwhelmingly positive feedback from buyers. There are important caveats to both products, to be fair: AirPods make listening to music more convenient only if you have a compatible Apple device for the effortless syncing via the W1 chip, and the Apple Watch is still heavily dependent on having an iPhone to pair it with. But the numbers don’t lie, and people already in the Apple ecosystem have been almost universally pleased with what they’ve gotten.
Apple’s willingness to weather criticism in the wake of unpopular decisions is laudable, and it’s an essential part of the company’s success over the years. But I reiterate my point about following the signal and not the noise: sometimes the criticism comes from the users of the company’s products and that’s when Apple should listen. The 2016 MacBook Pro refresh was unique not because there was a backlash to Apple’s design choices, but because it came from the company’s most loyal users. And ongoing concerns about that laptop generation’s battery life are only going to be felt more severely the longer it’s used.
What the AirPods prove to me is that Apple knows its customers well. Steve Jobs famously rejected focus groups and conventional thinking in favor of designing products that he and the rest of the team at Apple would want to use themselves. I’m not sure that’s still the way things are run inside Cupertino, but it’s evident that Apple still has a very good idea of what products its users want to use.