Competition is as competition does: The AirPods advantage

AirPods are good, but does that mean competition is over?


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There’s a moment in the trailer for the 1988 movie Tucker when Jeff Bridges wonders why everyone’s upset about his car and Martin Landau tells him “You make the car too good.” After initially being a laughing stock, seems like we’ve arrived at that point with AirPods.

Writing for ZDNet, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes says “Apple’s AirPods Pro are the best earbuds you can buy, but for all the wrong reasons.” (Tip o’ the antlers to Brian and Peter.)

$249 is a lot of money for a set of earbuds. For that sort of money, they don’t need to be good, they need to be pretty much perfect.

And they are pretty much perfect.

Sounds awful so far.

But, still, $249 is a lot of cash…

Wait, we just covered this! You said for $249 they should be good and that they were. Now somehow we’re back to “They’re very expensive!”

Here’s the crux of Kingley-Hughes’ complaint:

No other company can compete with Apple in this field because no other company can build support for its product directly into the iOS platform.

Integration has always been Apple’s competitive advantage. For years we have been told it’s not an effective one because all markets become commoditized and Apple would simply get priced out. Over and over again. Priced out of computers. Priced out of digital music players. Priced out of smartphones. Priced out of iPod socks. Priced out of home speakers—okay, that one actually happened. But now that Apple’s effectively shown how to beat that in earphones by making a product that stands out, people have started saying it’s unfair.

Is it?

Kingsley-Hughes isn’t alone in feeling that Apple’s advantage of owning the whole stack is unfair. The Verge’s Nilay Patel has likened this back to the Microsoft antitrust action of the early 2000s and there are some similarities. Both are examples of companies using proprietary software integration to tie two things together. Microsoft took advantage of owning the desktop computer market by baking its web browser into the operating system. Windows is Internet Explorer and Internet Explorer is Windows, they said.

The Macalope would argue that, unlike with AirPods, the customer “advantages” of tying Internet Explorer into the desktop were spurious at best. The advantages to Microsoft, however, were obvious. Now, ironically, the company is just showing anti-Firefox ads for Edge in its operating system. Windows is ads and ads are Windows.

There is a difference when down-and-out 1990s Apple ties together features and incredibly rich and powerful 2010s Apple does it. It’s a little counter-intuitive to consider the company we’re constantly reminded has a smaller market share to be a monopoly but anti-trust considerations are about competition, not just market share. Has the competition gone out of the wireless earphone market? Kingsley-Hughes seems to think so.

It’s game over for the other players in terms of earbuds.

Really? The Macalope loves his AirPods (non-pro), but certainly other manufacturers have Apple beat on price and AirPods are famously easy to lose. The Macalope firmly believes there’s room to innovate in the earbud market; the problem is that so many companies are now just rushing to make AirPod look-alikes that cost less and do less.

Kingsley-Hughes also complains about AirPods’ longevity and repairability. The Macalope agrees these are issues the company should work on but aren’t these also points against buying AirPods? Aren’t these areas other companies can differentiate? What if someone tried to sell the everlasting Gobstopper of earphones? Where are the Wonkapods?

It seems to the horny one that the first problem is Bluetooth which, let’s face it, sucks. And here The Macalope thought open always wins. The fact that someone has made the experience better isn’t necessarily a reason in and of itself that everyone should be given that experience. Bluetooth is the original sin of wireless headphones but salvation doesn’t necessarily only come in AirPod form. The Macalope is old enough to remember when Pixel Buds were going to kill AirPods, which is to say he is older than two and a quarter years old. Is it Apple’s fault they didn’t live up to the hype?

To The Macalope, it still seems like there’s plenty of room to compete against the very expensive, very losable and very silly-looking AirPods. The fact that no one is is more an indictment of the competition than it is of Apple.

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