Silicon Valley has long been on the cutting edge of aesthetics, with numerous game-changing designs over the years (like the Apple products released under Steve Jobs’s tenure) as well as some memorable misses (Google Glass). While Apple has succeeded in turning its white, dangling AirPods into a status symbol, wireless ear buds are gaining popularity despite, not because of, their design.
To the credit of those companies, product design experts say it’s difficult to create a pair of wireless, Bluetooth-enabled devices that sit comfortably but unobtrusively in the ear, provide high-quality sound and still capture the user’s voice. For one thing, the human body interferes with Bluetooth signals, so transmitting information to both ear buds in a synchronized fashion is complicated.
The newest devices to enter the fray are Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds, which the company unveiled this week at an event. The ear buds have touch and voice controls and retail for $249. The most visible part of each bud is a flat white disc that measures slightly less than an inch in diameter, about the size of a quarter.
Last week, Amazon announced its $129.99 Echo Buds, which are black, resemble round earplugs and are also about the size of a quarter. Visually, they are similar to Samsung’s equally priced Galaxy Buds, which are available in black, white and yellow and debuted in February.
None of the devices has escaped the wrath of social media. When they were introduced, AirPods were the butt of many a Twitter joke, and the devices have since been compared to Q-tips, corn cob holders and “an angry praying mantis.” Only after competitors were introduced did they seem streamlined in comparison. The Surface Earbuds were variously described on the Web this week as refrigerator magnets, the mint candy Mentos, ear gauges and “chonky bois,” a term used to describe pudgy pets.
“So Apple ear buds look like cigarettes hanging out of your ears while Surface ear buds look like you’ve been tagged as a part of an animal migration experiment,” tweeted Kevin Giszewski, a software engineer and podcast creator.
Apple, Samsung and Microsoft didn’t respond to requests for comment. Amazon declined to comment. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Other tech companies have followed Apple’s lead in part because ear buds have become big business for the company. Though Apple doesn’t disclose AirPods sales, Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives estimates that the company will sell between 55 million and 60 million AirPods this year, the equivalent of roughly $9 billion in revenue. That’s an important source of income as consumer interest in the iPhone wanes and the global smartphone market begins to slow.
In addition to seeing wireless ear buds as a cash cow, companies also view the devices as a path to lock consumers into their product and service ecosystem, as well as a way to bring digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa into the user’s broader world.
For instance, Microsoft’s Earbuds allow users to open their Outlook email and calendars with their voice and instantly stream music by triple-clicking either bud. Consumers can also use the buds to interact with their PowerPoint presentations.
Ives said there is a small window of opportunity for other ear bud manufacturers to encroach on Apple’s market dominance before the third-generation AirPods are released, which Ives says is likely to happen in early to mid-December. He expects the devices to include active noise-canceling technology, which is present in the Echo Buds and some other manufacturers’ products but not the Surface Earbuds or Galaxy Buds. The market penetration for wireless headphones is 10 percent to 12 percent, according to Ives. While it would be difficult for anyone to make a dent in Apple’s market share, tech companies are still trying.
“Right now, it’s an all-out assault,” Ives said. “These are really aggressive moves by competitors.”
Truly wireless headphones first appeared on the market in 2015 — devices from Earin and Bragi were among the initial batch — and became more popular after Apple’s AirPods launched in 2016. The devices have become such a symbol that retailer ASOS is selling an AirPod-like “faux headphone ear piece” for $9.50.
Apple’s market share was 53 percent in the second quarter of 2019, according to a Counterpoint Research report, the equivalent of about 14.3 million devices. That’s a decline from the 60 percent share Apple had for the prior two quarters, a slide driven by sales from second-tier competitors like Xiaomi AirDots. Samsung holds the No. 2 spot behind Apple with 8 percent market share.
Tech industry analyst Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies said she believes Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds could capture some of Apple’s market share because consumers will value the device for its ability to interact with Microsoft’s other software and not just its sound transmission capabilities.
“I wouldn’t think about it as, ‘Oh, I’m going to a store for ear buds, and here is what I’m getting,’ ” Milanesi said. “It’s more like, ‘I’m a Surface person. I buy into the brand. I’m a heavy Office user, and I want to use this with the capabilities that Office brings to me.’ ”
In that sense, the Surface Earbuds are more comparable to Amazon’s Echo Buds, which Amazon touts as being seamlessly integrated with its Alexa digital assistant.
As for Giszewski, he says he’s sticking with the “garden-variety” wireless ear buds he purchased for $30. That is, he said, until tech companies can come up with something that looks less ridiculous.