When presenting the iPhone 7 in early September, Phil Schiller spent a good chunk of time explaining the wonder of the upcoming AirPods, wireless earbuds that, per Schiller, “when you try [them], you’re just going to be blown away.”
But no one, including Apple, realized just how long it would before the general public would get a chance to be blown away. Originally supposed to be released at the end of October, and then delayed indefinitely, the AirPods are now finally available for preorder. It’s the first time Apple has delayed a product in six years — the last time was when they pumped the brakes on the release of the white iPhone 4, in 2010.
As of this writing, Apple’s website states the AirPods will ship in “4 weeks” — no guarantee of when exactly they’ll arrive (in other words, don’t count on these as a good gift for the holidays). Per Apple, “AirPods will be shipping in limited quantities at launch and customers are encouraged to check online for updates on availability and estimated delivery dates.”
Why the long delay? A recent Wall Street Journal article suggests that Apple’s reach may have extended its grasp:
A person familiar with the development of the AirPod said the trouble appears to stem from Apple’s effort to chart a new path for wireless headphones. In most other wireless headphones, only one earpiece receives a signal from the phone via wireless Bluetooth technology; it then transmits the signal to the other earpiece.
Apple has said AirPod earpieces each receive independent signals from an iPhone, Mac or other Apple device. But Apple must ensure that both earpieces receive audio at the same time to avoid distortion, the person familiar with their development said. That person said Apple also must resolve what happens when a user loses one of the earpieces or the battery dies.
The big promise of the AirPods is they’ll remove much of the friction that currently exists when attempting to use wireless Bluetooth headphones, by using Apple’s proprietary W1 chip instead. Tap the AirPods against your iPhone for instant pairing, and you’re off to the races. And despite numerous jokes about how easy they would be to lose, when I had a chance to try out a pre-production model in late September, they sat very firmly in place — though I didn’t get a chance to move around with them much.
Bluetooth, as it exists now, causes innumerable headaches. Devices will sometimes just disconnect for no reason, struggle to understand if more than one device has ever been paired with it, and often deliver a garbled audio experience if you’re wearing wireless headphones outside, due to the radio waves having nothing to bounce off of and having to pass through your water-filled body instead. The upcoming Bluetooth 5.0 standard is supposed to solve some of these problems, but so were previous updates by Bluetooth’s governing body.
After spending the past eight weeks testing out many, many different sets of wireless headphones running on Bluetooth, I’d welcome anything Apple can do to figure out how to solve the problems that Bluetooth headphones face. I think completely getting rid of the 3.5-mm headphone jack is ultimately an anti-consumer move, but I also think wireless headphones can be extremely useful — accidentally yanking your headphones by their 3.5-mm cord means either your headphones or your phone goes flying. If the extra time means Apple nails it with the AirPods, all the better. I’m not sure I’d get a pair of AirPods, but my hope is it’ll cause everyone else in the market to try to step up their game as well.