EarPods and AirPods and the power of ‘good enough’

t’s notable that Apple chose not to ship its Bluetooth AirPods in the box with new iPhones, even though its vision for the future is a wireless one.

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.


Tech reviews and broad tech industry media coverage are often about the cutting edge of technology, and as a result can be very critical of anything seen as less than stellar. But the reality is that many ordinary people regularly use technology that could be much more accurately described as “good enough” rather than bleeding-edge. The vast majority of us aren’t using the latest and greatest technology, not least because that often costs more than we’re willing (or able) to spend, and yet we do just fine. This creates an odd disconnect between how real people use technology, and how the experts talk about that same technology.

EarPods and defaults

Every iPhone ever shipped has come with a pair of Apple-provided earbuds in the box, just as iPods did before them. These earbuds have never been at the forefront of headphone technology — they’re small, relatively cheap to manufacture and make no claim to be anything more than they are. But Apple nevertheless made them part of its early ad campaigns for the iPod, and they became a fashion statement of sorts. In a recent survey conducted by Tech.pinions editor Ben Bajarin, more than half of those surveyed said they used the headphones that came in the box.

The fact is, defaults are powerful. Many people use those defaults, especially when they’re good enough. That’s not to say there aren’t better options out there for audiophiles, or those who want noise-canceling or over-ear options, but it is to say that, for many people, the basic option is just fine, and they’ll never look beyond it. This is obviously important in the context of the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack on the new iPhone 7. Apple is banking on the fact the majority of people who buy one of these new phones will use the new Lightning-based EarPods, just as they have always used their 3.5mm predecessors. Those who don’t will use the free adapter with their existing headphones, or start or continue using wireless options.

Deciding where good enough is enough

It’s notable, however, that Apple chose not to ship Bluetooth earbuds in the box, even though its vision for the future is a wireless one. Why is this? I think there are two reasons. First, as a practical financial matter, “good enough” in a Bluetooth headset costs significantly more than in wired earbuds, and Apple didn’t want to either raise the price or lower the margins on new iPhones to accommodate that increased cost.

But I think the other reason is that there is a dividing line between products that can afford to be simply good enough and those that can’t. Apple wants to evangelize wireless technology, and you don’t sell a vision based on “good enough” products. You make the very best to sell the story and then, over time, you supply options which are good enough to meet needs further down market. When the perception of a product affects the perception of your brand, you can’t just do “good enough” (unless that’s the brand identity you’re going for, as with Amazon’s Basics line of electronics).

Hence, Apple’s very different focus with its AirPods, which are on par with Apple’s hero products in terms of the positioning, marketing and, yes, pricing. This marks a departure for the Apple brand in the headphone space, although, of course, the acquisition of Beats brought higher-end headphones into the company under a separate brand. That, in turn, signifies something about the broader significance Apple expects the AirPods to take on over time, something others have written about here and elsewhere, and which I’ll likely tackle separately soon.

The challenge of premium

One of the biggest challenges for consumer electronics brands is targeting the premium segment while also serving lower segments of the market. One of Apple’s strengths is it has never really strayed from its premium positioning, even as it has brought several of its major product lines down in price over time. Conversely, other smartphone vendors looking to target the high end have also served the mid-market, and have struggled to associate their brands with premium positioning. This becomes particularly challenging when the same brands put out “good enough” and premium products in the same product category, like smartphones.

Part of Apple’s genius has been carefully separating the categories where it provides premium products from those where it participates at a good-enough level, and not allowing the two to mix or converge. The fact that Motorola and Samsung produce both high-end flagships and very cheap low-end smartphones doesn’t help their attempts to compete with Apple for the premium customer, and Motorola has arguably largely abandoned the very high end in the last year or two. In the car market, this problem is solved with sub-brands (think Lexus versus Toyota, or Cadillac versus Chevy), but we haven’t yet seen that approach play out in the consumer technology market in the same way.

Disruption theory and jobs to be done

Clayton Christensen’s Disruption Theory comes into play here, too — when companies insist on providing only a premium version of certain products, they risk low-end disruption from competitors catering to the needs of those who feel over-served by the current options. However, despite repeated predictions that the premium smartphone market would eventually be disrupted in this way, it hasn’t happened. Yes, low-end Android smartphones have become increasingly capable and cheap, but that’s disrupted almost entirely other Android smartphone vendors rather than Apple.

I believe there’s something about products that have strong personal associations — such as smartphones, cars, clothing and other luxury goods — which makes them stubbornly resistant to low-end disruption. Our use of these products says something about us, and using cheaper imitators may not convey the message we want. The job to be done of smartphones and other similar products, then, goes beyond their obvious functions, and is another reason why “good enough” isn’t good enough for at least some buyers who can afford to be more discriminating. This continues to be one of many fascinating aspects of the smartphone market which separate it from the rest of the consumer electronics industry and continue to make it such an interesting one to follow.


Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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Laurene Powell Jobs invests in Anonymous Content, the studio behind Mr. Robot and Spotlight

Via her Emerson Collective fund

Silicon Valley investor and and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs is getting into Hollywood.

Jobs is investing in Anonymous Content, the studio behind movies like “Spotlight” and “The Revenant” and TV shows including “Mr. Robot”, via her Emerson Collective fund.

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Qualcomm is talking to NXP Semiconductors about a $30 billion acquisition

More consolidation in the chip industry?

.With a wave of consolidation sweeping the chip industry, Qualcomm is talking to NXP Semiconductors about an acquisition with a price tag that could top $30 billion. NXP is the world’s top maker of chips for cars, and its broader product line would help Qualcomm diversify as the market for wireless chips matures.
[Eyk Henning, Dana Mattioli and Dana Cimilluca | Wall Street Journal]

.Salesforce, which lost out when business-networking site LinkedIn agreed to be acquired by Microsoft, is pressing the EU to investigate that deal over antitrust and privacy issues. Salesforce argues that Microsoft could block rivals’ access to the valuable pool of data generated by LinkedIn’s 450 million members. The deal has already been cleared by U.S. regulators.
[Dina Bass and Brian Womack | Bloomberg]

.Google is consolidating its enterprise software, services and hardware offerings into a new unit called Google Cloud. It’s also rebranding its collection of workplace apps as G Suite and adding features driven by machine learning.
[Mark Bergen | Bloomberg]

.Microsoft is sharpening its focus on artificial intelligence by merging its Bing and Cortana product groups with its longstanding Microsoft Research lab to create a 5,000-person AI and Research Group.
[Ina Fried | Recode]

.On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Kevin Purdy of The Wirecutter gives Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode the lowdown on all the foam mattresses offered by new online, direct-to-consumer companies.
[Eric Johnson | Recode]

Mobile
By Ina Fried
The FCC voted Thursday to expand emergency text messages to include links and longer messages.
Internet of Things
By April Glaser
Some Samsung washing machines are going kaboom.

The Gregory Brothers mess with debate history.

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Should you buy a mattress online?

Or is it no different from buying one in-store? The Wirecutter’s Kevin Purdy answers your questions on Too Embarrassed to Ask.

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All of a sudden, ads for online mattress companies seem to be everywhere.* Companies like Casper, Tuft & Needle and Leesa claim to sell cheaper mattresses that are also more comfortable.

Not so fast, The Wirecutter’s Kevin Purdy said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Speaking with Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, Purdy talked about his extensive testing of all the foam mattresses you can buy online, and said the startup world isn’t creating a new product so much as finding a new way to sell it.

“The companies themselves are a collection of CEOs, venture backers, people who are good at making sleek-looking websites, and usually some person inside who’s a former mattress person or some kind of designer,” Purdy said. “They always like to tout their MIT engineers.”

By selling direct to customers over the web, they can cut prices below what you’d see in a showroom. But the uniqueness of the mattresses themselves is often exaggerated, Purdy argued, because these companies are still “contracting with an established American regional mattress maker” — what big traditional rivals like Temper-Pedic, Seely, Simmons and Serta also do.

“The exaggeration comes from the terms they use to describe how their mattresses will work for ‘everybody,’” Purdy said. “Casper has used the term ‘perfect mattress.’ Tuft & Needle has said that it ‘adapts to every individual’s body.’ And Leesa, the one I recommend in our guide, has a ‘universal feel.’”

These claims, he explained, come from the fact that companies are focusing their brands around one or a few designs that are engineered to please a high percentage of sleepers, but might not work for everyone.

“The making of foam mattresses has been around for a long time,” he said. “They’re making a product that is aimed at the most people. To do that, they’re usually aiming at a medium-firm mattress, which is like the medium-rare steak of the mattress world.”

Later in the show, the trio answered your questions about the differences among these mattresses and the riskiness of their warranties.

Have questions about mattresses that we didn’t get to in this episode? Or have another tech topic on your mind? You can tweet any questions, comments and complaints to @Recode with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed. You can also email your questions to TooEmbarrassed@recode.net, in case Twitter isn’t your thing.

Be sure to follow @LaurenGoode, @KaraSwisher and @Recode to be alerted when we’re looking for questions about a specific topic.

If you like this show, you should also check out our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on iTunes — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara and Lauren. Tune in next Friday for another episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask!

* Disclosure: In fact, Recode Radio has read some of those ads, for two mattress companies to date. Casper has advertised on several of our podcasts and Helix Sleep has advertised on Recode Media. However, as with all our advertisers, neither had any say in or influence over the content of this episode.

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Exploding robots may already be in your house

Some Samsung washing machines are going kaboom.

Samsung devices are exploding again. Only this time, it’s washing machines.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning Wednesday about repeated reports of Samsung top-loading washing machines exploding in people’s homes.

Samsung was hit by a class action lawsuit last month from people who say their washing machine exploded. The company released a statement in response to the incidents yesterday, noting customers “have completed hundreds of millions of loads without incident since 2011.”

While the CPSC didn’t specify what models to watch out for, the regulators broadly noted that top loading machines made between 2011-2014 might blow up on you.

The warning comes after years of complaints of exploding washing machines from Samsung, with people reporting large parts shot across the room, leaving holes in walls and terrifying their families.

The news comes after the dust has barely settled on Samsung’s last snafu. Earlier this month the FAA banned passengers from taking the Galaxy S7 on airplanes due to the phone’s proclivity to catch fire.

The point here is the machines we have in our homes can malfunction and catch fire, and that’s deadly. It’s not just washing machines and cellphones. Sony Vizo HD televisions were recalled after reports the devices would start smoking and shoot flames out the back. There are cases of GE dishwashers overheating to cause fire that spread beyond the machine. Appliances were the cause of over 16,000 residential fires in 2014 alone, according to FEMA data.

Most appliances these days have a microcomputer inside, which are susceptible to electromagnetic interference from other Bluetooth-enabled electronics like phones, speakers and computers. That interference can cause a device to turn on by itself and malfunction. As our electronics become more complex there’s simply more that can go wrong.

Concerned washing machine owners can check if their unit has been affected by entering the serial number on Samsung’s website.

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Those emergency cellphone alerts are about to get more interactive

The FCC voted Thursday to expand emergency text messages to include links and longer messages.

The emergency alerts that get pushed to cellphones are about to get a lot more interactive.

What arrived in 2012 as the occasional text message about imminent weather issues has emerged as the key means of alerting Americans about all manner of emergencies, including Amber Alerts on missing children.

With changes approved by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, wireless carriers are being directed to add support for web and phone number links, as well as longer text messages.

Although people initially freaked out when their cellphones started blaring with warnings, mobile alerts have become one of the most dependable ways to alert Americans to pending issues, from hurricanes to mass shootings.

Adding links will allow government agencies to add photos and other important information to the alerts. The FCC order also increases the maximum length of the alerts from 90 to 360 characters on messages sent over LTE and future networks.

In addition, the FCC says wireless providers that take part in the alert system will need to support transmission of Spanish-language alerts as well as a new type of public safety alert that can transmit information such as the location of emergency shelter or an order to boil water.

The FCC has more information about the alerts on its website.

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Microsoft taps the brainpower of its legendary research unit in artificial intelligence push

The company says AI will be a part of everything it does.

Microsoft has decided it needs more real brains working on artificial intelligence.

The company said Thursday it is combining the team working on bots like Cortana with its longstanding Microsoft Research lab into a single 5,000-person unit.

Research head Harry Shum will lead the effort.

“Microsoft has been working in artificial intelligence since the beginning of Microsoft Research, and yet we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” Shum said in a statement.

The move continues an effort under CEO Satya Nadella to get more product results out of the research team, which for years focused primarily on academic pursuits.

An early example of this is Microsoft Pix, an iPhone camera app that uses artificial intelligence as a way to try to take better pictures. Pix is based on the idea that by the time a human takes a picture, the moment has likely passed, so it is recording pictures constantly and chooses the best photo from among those taken just before and after a person pushes the shutter button.

Microsoft says that in particular, it is looking to infuse artificial intelligence into a range of products from smart agents like the Cortana assistant to apps like Skype and Office as well as into the infrastructure and services it makes available to others.

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