Kleiner Perkins Product Fellow Application: What is the latest product you’re absolutely obsessed with and why? Briefly explain what the product is, provide a broader analysis on why it plays such a significant role, and come up with any recommendations you might have for future improvements.
When I finally caved and purchased a pair of AirPods two years back, it changed my entire lifestyle. Instead of forgoing music on my walk to class because I couldn’t be bothered to untangle my earbuds, I could easily connect to any device I wanted to. Instead of having to hum the song to myself while practicing a dance routine for the Stanford Dollies dance team, I could listen to it in real time. When I finally caved (again) and got a pair of the AirPods Pro this year, I truly did not expect my audio experiences to go from great to premium.
The AirPods Pro has changed the truly wireless Bluetooth headset playing field. Like its predecessor, the AirPods Pro outdo their competitors in the Bluetooth headset market by being easy to connect to any device automatically. Despite being incredibly lightweight and portable, the AirPods Pro also boasts advanced features normally found in $300-600 gaming headsets such as Active Noise Cancellation for immersive sound, a Transparency mode so you can hear your surroundings, and Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking for a theater-like surround-sound experience.
The 2016 release of the AirPods delivered a shock in the Bluetooth headset market, which had largely been dominated by players like BOSE, Sony, and Beats (Apple-owned). Bluetooth headsets up to this point were usually tethered earbuds (like the Powerbeats made for exercise uses cases) or banded on-ear or over-ear headsets (like BOSE banded models). Casual listeners like me were still relying on corded earbuds, typically the ones that came in the box with mobile devices that only offered basic features and tinny sound quality.
The AirPods and AirPods Pro proved that high sound quality and advanced features can be contained in tiny devices. By scaling immersive sound down from large headphones into truly wireless earbuds, casual consumers can now expect the best quality audio when we’re on-the-go with our mobile devices. In a digital world where we are all moving from place to place, its these improvements in quality and experience that separate the great from the premium.
The AirPods Pro, especially the Spatial Audio feature, are built for enhancing the movie and TV experience, with much of the marketing focusing on the movie theater-like experience you can achieve. Given wireless earbuds are most often paired with mobile devices, Apple should look to how features like Spatial Audio and Transparency Mode apply in on-the-go use cases for future iterations, such as listening to a podcast while on the train to work or listening to music on the walk to class. For example, Spatial Audio in its current form relies on having a “front” point for the user, which is typically the TV screen. When I’m on-the-go listening to a podcast, I no longer have a “front” point, so designing a spatial audio solution for audio-only content would need a completely new approach.
Music and podcasts, both audio-only formats, are two of the most popular content categories being consumed by mobile users, yet they are not always top of mind when designing for premium audio quality. For decades, average consumers have associated movie theaters and cinemas with premium and polished entertainment. If Apple were to introduce a paradigm shift that prioritizes music and podcasts for mobile use cases, it could very well kick off a cultural shift in how we consumer audio-only content.