AirPods: Apple’s wearable Christmas surprise

With stocks running dry, it looks like lots of Apple users will wake to AirPods under the tree this season, as Cupertino carves its post-smartphone future.

Apple, iOS, AirPod, Apple Watch, wearable, post smartphone
Daniel Masaoka/IDG

Stuck for a gift for the iPhone user in your life? It looks as if a lot of iPhone users can expect to find Apple’s AirPods under the tree this season, as stocks of the Siri-savvy earbuds dwindle worldwide and the product’s "iPod moment" looms.

The next wave

You see, online and offline retailers in the U.K. and U.S. appear to be running out of stock of AirPods this season, according to a series of reports.

That means Apple’s AirPods and (presumably) Apple Watch are defining wearable devices this season.

Given that wearable devices are widely seen as the next generation of IT after the smartphone, Apple’s success in getting these products into the hands of real live consumers means it is already building leadership in the post-smartphone age.

In a recent note to investors, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted that AirPods shipments will reach 26 million to 28 million next year, from around 13 million to 14 million in 2017.

Apple continues to develop its vision of a congregation of connected user-focused solutions with an iPhone as the central “brain.”

Armed with an Apple Watch and AirPods, users can already access relevant information and useful tools while keeping their iPhone in their pocket.

Building the trio of wearables

Rumors claim Apple is also developing augmented reality (AR) glasses, completing its triptych of wearable toys — and Siri improvements are introduced regularly, but because the voice assistant is server based, people aren’t always aware of them when they appear.

You can see the importance of these devices in Apple’s recently disclosed decision to put $390 million in Finisar, the company that helps build VCSEL chips that enable proximity and depth sensing on the iPhone X and AirPods.

"VCSELs power some of the most sophisticated technology we've ever developed," Apple's chief operating officer, Jeff Williams, said in a statement announcing the deal. Williams promised to “partner with Finisar over the next several years to push the boundaries of VCSEL technology and the applications they enable."

Strong adoption and deep investments like this in Finisar confirm Apple is already taking a leadership position in the post-smartphone era.

It already sells the world’s most widely used smartwatch, and rapidly growing interest in AirPods shows it will soon be selling the world’s most well-used smart headsets.

The future introduction of AR glasses makes it possible to imagine life post-smartphone.

Towards a new UI

What’s strange is how little recognition Apple is gaining for this. A report from ABI Research recently claimed that Apple will be a “follower” in the post-smartphone era — even though the company is already making inroads into creating a position in that emerging space.

“In this ‘post-smartphone’ era, the market is constantly forced to provide users with more immersive touch-less experiences. New interfaces will need to be developed where voice, artificial intelligence (AI), mixed reality, augmented reality and gesture experiences can all converge,” the researchers said.

That makes sense — and it is why Apple is already developing new user interfaces in which voice, AR, AI and gestures become important.

ABI Research also said, “In this ‘post-smartphone era’ of new ecosystems and experiences, there will be a requirement for significant investment in the underpinning technologies and technical expertise as well as the creation of 'intelligent phones' that are able to effectively leverage these forthcoming technologies.”

What I don’t understand is how these researchers can ignore that Apple has already engaged in a multi-year effort to ensure that the entire iPhone ecosystem is now 64-bit, and that its Siri investments, machine intelligence investments and continued success in carving dominance in the existing wearables sector show the company is already making these big investments in the technologies required.

The cat bird seat

It’s a typical Apple maneuver, of course: The company is once again positioning itself in the cat bird seat from which it can deliver effective solutions for the post-smartphone era.

This season’s seeming success in AirPod and Apple Watch sales suggests the company to be well advanced in this game. Apple will not be a “follower” in a space it is already defining.

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