What Are Apple's Plans With AirPods?

With the release of spacial and lossless audio just a few months ago, the release of the £549 AirPods Max and the rumours of a new update to the base model AirPods coming in the next few weeks, many now question what the future holds for a set of products that now account for 10% of overall sales at Apple.


Woman Wearing AirPods Pro in a New York Subway Station
New AirPods Pro are expected to release in the coming year. Image Credit: Apple

Apple's announcement and release of lossless audio for the entire Apple Music Library seemed very rushed, and significantly well timed with several high profile Apple executives (including Apple's CEO Tim Cook and Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi) testifying at the high-profile Epic vs Apple lawsuit court case.

Due to the news of lossless audio coming to Apple Music being broken just 24hrs before Apple were due in court, it lead to a media frenzy over the new lossless audio successfully covering the Apple executives statements in court and the bad press that could introduce. After a slew of hastily-written support articles were published by Apple. Dozens of questions about what devices supported the new audio format, and a significant amount of anticipation, the finally the news broke that in fact none of Apple's AirPods, including the £549 over-ear headphones that had only been released 6 months earlier, would support the lossless audio format.

Too many, it came as a great shock, however zooming out, it is easy to connect the dots and see the pattern that is developing. Just as the Find-My network had been opened up to third parties via an API around a month before AirTags were released, the same was happening with Apple Music. Third-Party devices support lossless audio, preventing the argument of Apple's anti-competitor behaviour. However many sources close to the development of AirPods have hinted at a software or firmware update coming at some point in the future, bringing lossless audio to the AirPods.

Current AirPods are unable to support lossless audio due to technical limitations as they currently receive and transmit data via bluetooth. Bluetooth is unable to support the amount of data that is required to be transferred for lossless audio. However, in a future software or firmware update to AirPods could mean that AirPods support lossless audio via AirPlay using WiFi, instead of bluetooth, which has the ability to transfer significantly larger packets of data. In the 'Genius Bar' Podcast, leaker Jon Prosser stated that he had heard such from internal people within the company who were familiar with Apple's plans for AirPods.


New Hardware?

According to a report in Bloomberg; "Apple is readying a revamp of its entry-level AirPods for this year and a second generation of the AirPods Pro for next year."

The update to the base model for AirPods will mark the first update to the product design since March 2019 that will reportedly add a new style that mostly mirrors that of the current AirPods Pro. The earbuds will come with a new case and shorter stems poking out of the bottom of each earbud.

Apple is also wanting to improve battery life in the model, adding to extended periods of listening time between each charge cycle. The AirPods Series 3 model however, will not have higher-end AirPods Pro features like noise-cancellation, as this would cut into the current high sales of AirPods Pro for Apple.

In an unprecedented turn of events a few months ago, tens of leaked images surfaced across the internet from multiple sources showing real-life images of the new AirPods, dubbed Series 3. This lead to a wave of knock-off 'AirPods Series 3' being released for sale across the internet before the real release of the product by Apple.

A Family mealtime with a White HomePod mini on the table
Apple is expected to push it's presence in the smart home industry with products that will work alongside the new HomePod mini. Image Credit: Apple

For the new AirPods Pro, reportedly coming in the next year, Apple is aiming to make the earbuds more compact by eliminating the short stem that currently sticks out from the bottom. This look will debut on new Beats-branded wireless earbuds that were released a few weeks ago, called Beats Studio Buds. A design in testing has a more rounded shape that fills more of a user’s a ear - similar to the latest designs from Samsung Galaxy Buds and Amazon Echo Buds and Google Pixel Buds according to Bloomberg's Mark Gurman.

Integrating noise-cancellation, wireless antennas and microphones into a smaller AirPods Pro casing has proved challenging during development, which could result in a less ambitious design when the product is finalised, sources close to the development of AirPods Pro have said. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment to reporters on the matter.

The new AirPods Series 3 and AirPods Pro 2 will join other new Apple audio devices like the HomePod mini and AirPods Max. In the speaker world, the company has also weighed launching another smart speaker that would sit between the HomePod mini and the original version in the line up, extending Apple's reach into the smart home industry.

The AirPods Pro coming next year will be the first change to that product since October 2019 and will (according to a report in Bloomberg based on reports from leakers), "Include updated motion sensors with a focus on fitness tracking".

Apple had previously aimed to release the new AirPods Pro (series 2) as early as this year, however assumingly due to the Covid-19 pandemic the release had been pushed back.

Updates to the AirPods will bolster the company’s wearables, home and accessories segment, which has grown rapidly for the company. It now accounts for more than $30 billion in annual revenue, exceeding 10% of total sales across the whole company.

The new Apple Store in Los Angeles on opening day
AirPod sales now account for more than $30 billion in annual revenue. Image Credit: Apple

The last AirPods-related hardware introduction from Apple was the over-ear AirPods Max headphones in December. The price tag for the AirPods ($549 per pair) earned heavy criticism for bugs and its high price but praise for its materials and sound. To many, 'AirPods Max left people brilliantly baffled; for half the price they could get a better sounding earphones.' according to interviews conducted by Forbes. At $550, the headphones are some of the most expensive on the market, rivalling even the priciest offerings from Sony, Sennheiser and Dolby. The new model comes about five years after Apple acquired Beats by Dre’s headphone division, putting Apple now in a position to compete with its own subsidiary.

"AirPods Max left people brilliantly baffled"

Apple only recently caught up with demand for the product, as it sold out within the first few weeks of being released and took around a month to re-stock supply. It shows that Apple was not expecting as many sales of the product, and demonstrates that even they thought AirPods Max were unlikely to gain significant traction, however as demonstrated, this was incorrect. According to a source close to Bloomberg, it is not currently working on a second generation of the AirPods Max, though it has discussed launching additional colour variations in the future. But if this would promote sales of the product has yet to be concluded.

A screenshot of the setup process of AirPods Pro
The new AirPods Pro Series 2 model is expected to have shorter stems like the recently released Beats Studio Buds (Pictured) and a better battery life amongst other features. Image Credit: Apple

AirPods have always been seen as the premier wireless earbuds. Since they were first released in 2016, they have outdone competition with the simplicity, design and easy-to-use features. Although, in recent years competitors have caught up with Apple and the wireless earbud sector has changed significantly with many new designs coming out including the shift in consumer desire for a smaller non-stem design; much like the Beats Studio Buds. The release of the Beats studio buds could be seen as an experiment by Apple under the name of their subsidiary company 'Beats', to see if the consumer demand for stemless earbuds is strong enough. Therefore allowing the company to test if stemless AirPods are viable and profitable in a fast moving and highly competitive market.

Only time will tell what the future holds for AirPods, and with the upcoming release of AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro 2 expect an array of new features and another boom in demand for AirPods. With the expected software release for AirPods and the ability to stream lossless audio to them using wifi instead of the traditional bluetooth, this could also make them significantly more preferable over other wireless earbuds, pushing them once again higher than the competition in consumer preferability.