Is Apple (AAPL) in the process of reinventing the way mainstream headphones are designed for the second time this decade?
10 years ago, I was the only guy on the train wearing earbuds. Thanks to Apple’s iPod, now everyone is. Is the remote control clicky-thing the next thing every set of earphones has to have?
Apple has been shipping earbuds with built-in microphones and in-line remote controls since the iPhone went on sale in June, 2007. But they’ve increasingly become useful with other Apple products. The new iPod touch and iPod nano, released last fall, respond to the remote control to play and pause tracks, and can access the microphone. New Mac laptops do, too.
But you could still use all of those devices almost as effectively without Apple earbuds, and without the remote control. Until today.
Apple’s new iPod shuffle, announced this morning, ditches its built-in play/pause/volume controls, exclusively using the ones built in to Apple’s earbuds. For now, that means you’re all but required to use Apple’s earphones: While many other headphone makers ship some models with built-in remote controls and microphones, many don’t include volume controls. (Others use different, sliding volume controls that might not be compatible with Apple products.)
Will the industry shift (again) toward Apple’s design? Will every headphone maker start including mics and in-line remote controls on most of the models they ship? Will volume controls standardize around the ones Apple has designed? It’s possible, especially as people increasingly listen to music on their mobile phones, where mics and remotes are most useful — and especially as Apple’s influence in the consumer electronics industry continues to strengthen.
If this happens, it’ll be the second time this decade that Apple has changed headphone fashion. The first: The shift toward earbuds.
Since the iPod exploded, they’re everywhere. Everyone makes earbuds, and many people wear them — both the free ones that ship with iPods and iPhones and popular, third-party designs from high-end and low-end manufacturers like Shure, Belkin, Etymotic Research, Bose, Sony, Nike, Beats Tour, H2O, V-MODA, etc.
Moreover, Apple’s old iPod commercials, where dark silhouettes danced around with white earbud cables flying around, even made earbuds subconsciously fashionable. It seems like other consumer electronics makers started shipping their gadgets with earbuds after that — or at least designing more replacement earbuds instead of over-the-skull-style headphones.
That’s a big change from 10 years ago, when most people on public transportation — Chicago’s L, in my case — were still using the black plastic, folding-type earphones, like those that came with the Sony (SNE) Discman and other CD players. Some were over-the-ear and foamy, some fit in the ear. Then Sony made the ones that went in the back of your head — not over the top — so they didn’t mess up your hair. And then the ones that clipped directly onto your ears.
I went earbuds-only in the mid-90s. First, with the ones that came for free with my Nintendo (NYDOY) Gameboy. Then, a nice $20 set from Sony. Later, the yellow and grey “Sony Sports” earbuds. After that, a fancy silver Sony pair I picked up in Hong Kong. (With a remote for my Discman and MiniDisc player.)
And now, I use fancy, expensive ones from Etymotic Research that block out outside noise — and sound really, really good. They have a remote control, but only for picking up the phone and pausing/switching music tracks. But they don’t have volume controls, so they won’t be as effective with the new iPod shuffle as Apple’s.
So it’ll be interesting to see if (and how quickly) other companies follow Apple’s lead and standardize their remote controls — or if Apple mostly keeps this market to themselves for a while.
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