The surprisingly long history of the Apple AirPods

Posted:
in General Discussion edited September 7
From first ideas to the superb earphones Apple now sells, AppleInsider looks back to the very beginning of Apple's AirPods.

Apple AirPods in their charging case


Quick story. When researching our piece on getting the most out of AirPods, we had a little incident. Late at night, we clicked on our Apple TV to play Regina Spektor Essentials from Apple Music and it was so loud that we panicked we were going to wake the neighbors.

Only there was no possibility that our neighbors would hear a single note because we were wearing the AirPods.

Apple TV connecting to AirPods


They were so clear, so loud and most importantly so light that we forgot we had them in our ears. The music was just in the air, it was just around us.

You can tell us that AirPods are not the best for audiophiles but in that moment as in so very many others, the technology vanished and there was just the music. Coincidentally, the first track on that Essentials playlist is called Fidelity.

Given that we always thought the wired EarPods were okay, we're surprised just how much we adore AirPods. In theory they are simply the EarPods without wires yet along the way, they've become so much more than that.

What also surprised us was how just long that road from idea to our ears really was.

Listen out

AirPods went on sale in December 2016 but the first mention of them is five years before in 2011. Seriously.

On March 29, 2011, Jorge S Fino filed for a patent for EarPod-like headphones that could work with or without wires. The patent wasn't published until October 3, 2012, but then we could read that it specified that "when the listening device is detached from the corded portion, a wireless signal that includes the audio signal is transmitted from the second part of the corded portion for reception at the first part of the listening device."

"Broadly speaking, the embodiments described herein relate to a media apparatus that can be used in conjunction with a host device to provide an end user a pleasurable listening experience especially during periods of physical activity."

Fino is listed on many patents credited to Apple such as ones to do with docking and touch interfaces.

This one, called a Detachable Wireless Listening Device, came with illustrations.

Sketch from Apple patent showing a woman wearing wired headphones that can be disconnected work wirelessly


Notice the break in the wire just below her chin. It's a connector showing a wired headphone cable that has been disconnected. At this point the focus seems clearly on creating a listening device that doesn't get interrupted by problems with the connection. It doesn't seem to be aiming at making a wireless-only solution.

Nor would it because such technology requires Bluetooth and Steve Jobs wasn't a fan. Or at least he wasn't in 2005 when reportedly he told press in Paris that: "There are quality issues - the bandwidth isn't high enough, and even if it does get there some day, people don't want to recharge their headphones."

That quality issue was arguable even in 2005 so by 2011 it was practically a non-issue. The business about recharging your headphones remains. Still, we're now all so trained to recharge everything every day that even as we sink when our AirPods play that dismal low-power sound, we accept it.

Beats

We don't know whether that 2011/12 patent means Apple was continually working on the idea from then on. However, the company certainly invested in both music and headphone technology: in 2014 it bought Beats.

Apple website notice saying Welcome to the Family on the company's acquisition of Beats


At the time, it was considered a surprising move by the company and especially so because Apple paid $3 billon for it. That worked out to $500 million for the predominantly headphones-based business Beats Electronics and the rest for Beats Music, a subscription service.

In 2015 that was subsumed into the then-new Apple Music but Beats Electronics has continued as a separate company. While it's owned by Apple and it's impossible to imagine that there wasn't a lot of Beats input into the AirPods, strictly speaking we don't know. You can buy wireless earphones from Beats even today.

Still, Apple announced it was buying Beats in March 2014 and it officially closed the deal in August that year.

In June 2015, Apple Music began -- and Apple had already begun to file for a trademark on the name AirPods. On March 25 that year, Apple started the process and it was formally registered on August 22, 2015. By September the trademark had been granted.

AirPods are born

Strictly speaking, the trademark was filed by a company called Entertainment in Flight LLC, based in Wilmington, Delaware. It was suspected by press, including AppleInsider, that this was a shell company created by Apple. The idea was that this way Apple could get its necessary trademark without effectively announcing a product before it wanted to.

The suspicion was correct but if you ever want proof, check out that trademark filing today. Entertainment in Flight is no longer listed: it's been replaced by Apple, Inc.

So by September 2015 we had the name AirPods and we had that prior patent about wireless headphones. There was just one more thing.

Exit headphone jack

Apple pulled the plug on the iPhone headphone jack with the launch of the iPhone 7 on September 7, 2016. It was controversial but it wasn't a surprise: there had been rumors for at least two months beforehand.






This was the Apple presentation where Phil Schiller described removing this jack as "courageous". He's since been mocked for that but if he were wrong to say it, he was right that this was Apple again making a decision it knew would be deeply unpopular. It was the company making a choice to abandon technology in favor of what it believes are clear benefits.

Going in to this presentation, we expected that the headphone jack would vanish. It wasn't a big leap, then, to expect that AirPods would be launched too but surely it was a surprise just how complex the technology was.





It may have been love at first sight for us and it is impossible to not be impressed with the startling complexity behind such a simple product. However, it was also impossible not to wonder about these AirPods falling out of your ears -- or about losing them altogether.

Poor reception

In the UK, The Guardian newspaper summed up the criticism in a piece called Earth to Apple: wireless AirPod headphones are like a tampon without a string.

This wasn't the first time an Apple device had been compared to the same sanitary product. In 2010, FastCompany's Alissa Walker wrote: "Apple's iPad name not the first choice for women. Period."

We're so used to it now that the word iPad no longer conjures up Maxi-Pad-like connotations but it was a fair criticism and a good point. The fact that the AirPods lack a string is much less so.

Even though Apple's 2011/12 original patent filings showed a earphones with optional wires, still the idea of making a wireless headphone and then putting a wire back in was nonsense.

More was made of the cost of the AirPods: they launched at $159. Compared to the $29 of Apple's EarPods, that's a huge amount. Yet compared to other wireless headphones, it wasn't then -- and it still isn't. Now in 2018 when other manufacturers have released similar wireless earphones we have ones such as Bose's SoundSport which costs $199.

Love at first hearing

AirPods were announced at the September 7, 2016 event and were meant to ship the following month. Ultimately they didn't reach either Apple's online or retail stores until late December that year.

Writer Daniel Eran Dilger literally flips for the AirPods, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge them from his ears


Daniel Eran Dilger was among the first to use them and his review for AppleInsider is rapturous.

"More than just wireless earbuds," he wrote, "Apple's tightly integrated AirPods expand the company's sophistication and lead in wearables, with a practical, powerful pair of tiny technology "pods" that bring a new joy to music listening on a level reminiscent of the original iPod."

The issue of whether they'll fall out of your ears does continue. However, it is remarkable how well they fit most people and startling how difficult it is to dislodge them by accident.

The issue of whether you'll lose them has been addressed, though, at least a little.

Find My AirPods

There have been no hardware updates to the AirPods since launch but there have been two firmware ones in February 2017 and March that same year.

Alongside refinements, these added the ability to utilise Find My iPhone. "If you already set up Find My Phone with an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch that you're using with your AirPods, it's automatically enabled for your AirPods too," says Apple.

The future

There are rumors that a second generation of the Apple AirPods is in development for possible release in 2019.




Before that, we would have expected to see a redesign of the charging case that AirPods come in. Apple specifically said there would be a wireless charging version but that was to be introduced with the AirPower charging pad.

While that was also announced at the September 2017 event, it was only promised for some time in 2018.

AirPods may be the archetypal Apple product, though. Right now you couldn't wrestle our AirPods from our hands -- but we love them so much that whenever AirPods 2 come out, we'll abandon these and buy the new ones instantly.

In the meantime, please excuse us: Apple Music has just updated our New Music Mix.

Keep up with AppleInsider by downloading the AppleInsider app for iOS, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter @appleinsider and Facebook for live, late-breaking coverage. You can also check out our official Instagram account for exclusive photos.
watto_cobra
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 29
    A massive game changing device. Stay good. Be great. Love & be loveable. ❤️
    christopher126JWSCwatto_cobra2old4fun
  • Reply 2 of 29
    thedbathedba Posts: 460member
    Totally agree with this assessment of AirPods. 
    I was lucky to find two boxes on the shelf of the downtown Montreal Apple store in December 2016. 
    Haven’t worn a wired earphone with my iPhone/iPad ever since. 
    christopher126racerhomie3jbdragonwatto_cobra2old4fun
  • Reply 3 of 29
    "The business about recharging your headphones remains. Still, we're now all so trained to recharge everything every day that even as we sink when our AirPods play that dismal low-power sound, we accept it."

    I don't know if it's intentional or not, but honestly, I never think of having to charge my AirPods. Since putting them in their storage case begins to charge them, the process is pretty frictionless. They've eliminated the mental hang up of having to charge them by integrating it into their storage. Granted, you have to charge the case every few days, but what can you do?
    christopher126racerhomie3JWSCjbdragonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 29
    I have a pair and I heartedly recommend them. Especially for running, listening to Podcasts, AudioBooks, music, etc.

    The AppleWatch coupled w/ the AirPods is Apple's replacement for the venerable iPod! Can you say, "No wires?"

    Lots better than carrying your iPhone everywhere! :)


    P.S. Perhaps wait for the new wireless recharging case.
    jbdragonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 29
    Great device, but not comfortable for many people.  Would it hurt to make a version with gels, or different shapes?
    caladanianTomEbonobobwlym
  • Reply 6 of 29
    Love my AirPods. Use them all day with work calls (one at a time and switch back and forth during real longs calls). I pretty much forget I have them in my ears for the whole day.

    Also love Regina Spektor !!
    jbdragonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 29
    Next up: The surprising long history of the Apple AirPower

    Announced in September 2017 . .. . . . 

    larrya
  • Reply 8 of 29
    williamh said:
    Next up: The surprising long history of the Apple AirPower

    Announced in September 2017 . .. . . . 

    Haha...well said. I take your point. :)


    watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 29
    Day 1, wear them almost every day. They're great... Only issue is the batteries are worn out, mine start to run red after an hour on the phone or two hours playing back music. I'll have to send them in for battery service.
    edited September 7 watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 29
    metrixmetrix Posts: 230member
    Please, please Apple can you just offer black, space gray, maybe a blue or something. Wallet is open 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 29
    Day 1, wear them almost every day. They're great... Only issue is the batteries are worn out, mine start to run red after an hour on the phone or two hours playing back music. I'll have to send them in for battery service.
    My only concern is regarding worn out batteries. Based on your comment I just googled the service page. 50 for battery replacement seems ok. 
    StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 29
    "wireless AirPod headphones are like a tampon without a string."
    So then, (I guess) Apple's corded earbuds are like just a 'tampon' (??)
    watto_cobrawlym
  • Reply 13 of 29
    As for me; just waiting for "AirPods 2".  please... please... please... please...
    That will take care of my entire Christmas gift shopping list for everybody.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 29
    TomETomE Posts: 129member
    The biggest problem with the AirPods is they will not stay in my ears - not even when I am sitting.  They essentially fall out when I make the slightest movement.
    In spite of what Apple thinks, the Beats with foam or other brands with foam or Gel or over the ear hooks are better.  I say better, because If one cannot keep them in their ears, it does not matter how cool they are - for me they are a problem.  And now Apple is forcing me to go wireless and if they don't make the products where I can use them, I will leave and go somewhere else - Apple Owner since before 1984.
    bonobobwlym
  • Reply 15 of 29
    foljsfoljs Posts: 307member
    We're so used to it now that the word iPad no longer conjures up Maxi-Pad-like connotations but it was a fair criticism and a good point.
    Yeah, if you're 13 years old, and laugh at anything that can construed as a reference to bodily functions.

    As if the word pad wasn't in common use for all kinds of other things without anyone laughing (drawing pad, launchpad, mousepad, and so on).

    The connection also don't even register to 95% of the Earth's population, who aren't Americans, and don't call a product "maxi-pad".


    StrangeDaysbackstabwatto_cobra2old4funchristopher126
  • Reply 16 of 29
    I would love to have a pair of AirPods with ear hooks.  Currently using Powerbeats 3 with ear hooks, but they also have a wire between the two earpieces that I could do without.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 29
    radarthekatradarthekat Posts: 2,739moderator
    foljs said:
    We're so used to it now that the word iPad no longer conjures up Maxi-Pad-like connotations but it was a fair criticism and a good point.
    Yeah, if you're 13 years old, and laugh at anything that can construed as a reference to bodily functions.

    As if the word pad wasn't in common use for all kinds of other things without anyone laughing (drawing pad, launchpad, mousepad, and so on).

    The connection also don't even register to 95% of the Earth's population, who aren't Americans, and don't call a product "maxi-pad".


    Exactly.  Here in the Philippines I get strange looks if I ask for extra napkins at a restaurant.   That’s the word they use for feminine pads.  Tissue is the word here.
    watto_cobrallama
  • Reply 18 of 29
    Eh, they don’t seem practical, especially for working out. They’d fall out of my ear and into the ocean while running. I have a pair of BeatsX that I really like, but battery life sucks. 
  • Reply 19 of 29
    I am not sure why, but being an investigative article; I would expect a thorough fact check into the start of this project.  actually introduced a minimalistic Bluetooth headphone with the original iPhone, as an accessory. It was expensive, came with a dual dock, was pretty sleek; and supported A2DP while still being a mono headphone (in 2007). That’s where the investigation began, it just took a very long time to merge that tech w new lower power and more feature capable BT revisions and ditch the cord. The beats purchase definitely helped accelerate that development ten fold though ;)
    darwiniandudematrix077
  • Reply 20 of 29
    Unrelated to their history...
    Can AirPods and their smart chip connect to non-Apple Bluetooth devices?
    Specifically, my grandson would like to use a pair with his bluetooth X-Box controller so he can hear the game and talk with fellow gamers.  But we don't know if the AirPods would connect and work with it since its not an Apple product?
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