When Apple bought Beats in 2014, it immediately became one of the biggest headphone sellers in the world. Then, for years afterwards, it basically didn’t touch its headphone lineup aside from a few minor updates.
So when Apple launched the iPhone 7 this past September, it was a great opportunity to launch new headphones, because a phone without a headphone jack was the perfect time to get people excited about wireless headphones.
The new models introduced in September were the Apple-branded AirPods, and the Beats X, a pair of earbuds with a cord attaching them.
And with less than two weeks before Christmas, neither of them are in stores, and there is no release date for either product.
In fact, the Beats X might be a while. An Apple reseller emailed a customer recently saying that the Beats X might not ship for “at least 2-3 months.” The reseller even said Apple still does “not know when they will begin shipping this item.”
The AirPods are also missing, after Apple said they would launch in October. The most recent update from The Wall Street Journal implies they won’t be on sale before Christmas, either.
But even if the AirPods or Beats X were to appear at Apple Stores in the next week, it’s still a problem for Apple — 13 days of time on sale before Christmas is not optimal, and there are suggestions that stock at stores will be very limited.
Apple did not answer questions about when the Beats X headphones would ship. The company’s product page still says “coming this fall.”
A problem with operations
What’s the reason for the delay?
The Journal suggests it’s a design flaw:
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.
If true, this would be a huge problem for Apple. Yes, wireless protocols are hard, but announcing a product with fundamental flaws — like being unable to properly synchronise the two earpieces wirelessly — is a very bad sign.
But if this were the case, there shouldn’t be a problem with the Beats X, which are wireless, but have the two earbuds connected by a wire.
Apple blogger John Gruber suggests that the AirPods delay is a manufacturing problem. He says that people who would know say they’re “more difficult to manufacture at scale than expected.”
That makes more sense than a issue with how the headphones work. But it should still be deeply concerning to Apple fans and investors. Missing a big launch before Christmas is simply a failure — there’s no other way to put it. These two products were announced so they could take advantage of the big 4th quarter spending boom, and Apple was not able to deliver them on time.
As The Wall Street Journal points out, Apple hasn’t missed a deadline for an announced product like this since the white iPhone 4 in 2010. And its CEO, Tim Cook, made his name doing supply chain operations — so multiple products being hard to manufacture is the exact kind of stuff you’d think he’d know ahead of time.
The missed release date isn’t the only sign that there’s been a lack of care with Apple’s headphones. Apple was able to get updated versions of its Solo on-ear headphones and its PowerBeats workout earbuds on sale.
But these new versions still charge using micro-USB, not the same cords that Apple’s iPhone or laptops use. To summarize: if one were to get Apple’s flagship phone (iPhone 7), laptop (MacBook Pro), and headphones (Beats Solo 3) that will be available this Christmas, she would require three different charging cables to keep them all powered up.
But ultimately Apple must regard how it brought its headphones to market this fall as a massive failure. It’s a missed opportunity and a visible embarrassment for the company. Sure, headphones aren’t as important to Apple’s top line as the iPhone, but Apple shouldn’t be botching any product launches like this.