Having recently (finally) bought a pair of big chunky Bluetooth headphones, thinking they were so commonplace I wouldn’t get any weird looks, I now realise that once again I’m at the wrong end of a trend curve. People are staring at me — and not for my rugged visage. I’m the oddity: everyone else is sporting wireless earphones, the Apple AirPods variety (although I suspect quite a few of them are the cheap knockoffs which are indistinguishable in look and a tenth the price.)
Reality bites: what once looked a bit weird — massive headphones — looks weird again, and what looked even weirder — wireless earphones with little sticks dangling out of them — looks cool, and increasingly normal.
The data is surprising. Canalys reports that what it calls “smart personal audio devices”– lumping together all the various wireless or semi-wireless buds, earphones and headphones — are this year set for strongest year in history, with real wireless earphones (true wireless stereo, or TWS) “the largest and fastest growing category.”
Indeed, it’s not only the fastest and largest growing category. It has leapfrogged the other two in the space of a year.
That’s particularly interesting because the original AirPods were launched three years ago. It’s taken that long for them to conquer the market, and this is a product that cost anywhere between $140 and $250. Yes, I know people spent silly money on headphones but that’s a lot of dough for something so small you’re likely to lose it down the back of the couch or running to catch the bus. But it has become, in quite short order, a massive market when you consider how many smartphones there are. In terms of units, it’s a quarter the size of the smartphone market (see below) which, according to IDC was about 360 million units in Q3 2019. And that market is virtually static, while the ‘smart personal audio devices’ market has nearly tripled.
This is all of Apple’s doing. They created the wireless earphone market singlehandedly. They were slow on headphones, and they never went for the wireless earpieces connected by cord, and their ordinary earphones have never really, in my view, stacked up, but it seems with the second version of the AirPod, and the AirPod Pro, they’ve taken the market they created and dominated it:
You could argue that since they only work with Apple devices the data is skewed but you could also look at it the other way: the Samsungs, Huaweis and Xiaomis of this world have not risen to the challenge for the Android market, and are lagging woefully. Given that Samsung shipped 78 million devices in Q3, while Huawei shipped 67 million against Apple’s 47 million (IDC numbers again), it’s clear just how much of a market opportunity they’ve missed. Canalys’ numbers, meanwhile, suggest that Apple shipped 18.5 million AirPods that quarter, meaning that 40% of every iPhone sold was sold alongside, or nearby, an AirPod. That’s impressive stuff.
While Canalys focus on the ‘smartness’ of these devices — the control they allow, the possibility of sensors etc capturing health data and serving as payment devices — I think that’s not the point. The likes of Jabra have been trying to sell wireless earphones for swimmers, runners etc for years, and it’s remained a niche market. Apple have instead done what they do best — mastering the technology to make the experience of listening to stuff easy, seamless and, at least now, so cool it’s become de rigeur. The problem was always a simple one: wires. They got rid of the wires, and they made devices that sound good, fit snugly and well (at least with the Pros) and connect relatively painlessly.
That was the problem to solve, and hence the market unleashed.
Don’t overcomplicate it.