AirPods and HomePod updates would bring Apple closer to its audio ambitions

With screen time under attack and Siri preparing for a huge boost, the company is taking tentative steps toward making hero devices for voice.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Video: WWDC 2018: The big productivity features from Apple's developer event

Even with Apple's inevitable shift to a more services-based model, there is still a lot for the company to explore in devices. When it comes to its latest launches, screens are giving way to sounds. The company launched wireless earbuds and smart speakers after these categories had been growing for years. And recent reports indicate that the company is looking to up its game, preparing to release higher-end products, including new headphones.

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Sure, one might consider AirPods simply another "true wireless" set of earbuds that are successors to the white earbuds Apple bundled with the first iPod. Similarly, the HomePod can be downplayed as a swipe at a competitor unafraid to swipe back. However, one gets the sense that audio is about to take on a role closer to the core of the Apple experience than ever before based on recent moves:

Lowering barriers to ecosystem interaction

From the friendliness of the Mac to the ubiquity of the iPhone, Apple has long worked on lowering interaction barriers to computing. The Apple Watch represents about the lower limit in terms of what can be meaningfully conveyed using today's display technologies.

But, of course, there are many instances where interacting with a display is neither desirable nor safe despite Apple's CarPlay using one. An audio interface is critical for a more comprehensive and (at times) natural mode of interaction, particularly as Apple plays the long game with Siri.

Addressing screen fatigue

This year's developer conferences were noteworthy for seeing both Google and Apple respond to growing concerns about smartphone addiction. The upcoming versions of their smartphone operating systems will provide users new tools for tasks such as tracking their own app usage, locking themselves out of their own devices for a period of time, and setting phones into a wind-down mode conducive to falling asleep easier (an extension of the blue light filtering trend of 2016).

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However, even in these "downtimes," consumers want a way to be able to engage in tasks that don't require visual focus, tasks that Apple can use to build bridges between its current app ecosystem leadership, and whatever may come next.

Driving a Siri resurgence

Speaking of Siri, Apple gave the pioneering voice agent its biggest shot in its disembodied arm ever at its World Wide Developer Conference in June. Following an extended outcry about the limits of interoperability, Apple opened the doors to both developers and users to extend Siri's prowess.

The results could be transformative, pairing Siri's massive usage scale with iOS's app breadth. Along the way, it would not only do much to improve Siri's usefulness on the iPhone and Mac, but have the potential to enrich the experience on AirPods and the HomePod, as well.

Last year, I wrote about how voice has enabled Amazon to get back into the consumer platform race after failing in smartphones and being marginalized in the fading tablet market. This point was also recently made by ZDNet columnist Brent Leary, who sees Amazon driving a voice-first transformation.

Apple isn't yet at that point. After all, Siri was an anomaly as it represented a major user interface introduction that was not accompanied by a companion device as has been Apple's custom with the likes of the mouse, the click wheel, and multitouch. Marrying an extension of the path of something like the Bragi Dash Pro smart earbuds to the Apple Watch, AirPods could become that platform, as could the HomePod. Until Siri is ready for those demands, Apple can continue to seed the market.

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