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AirPods, one year later: How Apple bet on our faces and won

AirPods have gone from a joke to a must-have product. How did that happen -- and what's next for Apple's wireless headphones?

Here we go again.
James Martin/CNET

A year ago, I put AirPods in my ears and they became a Reddit joke.

Cigarettes in my ears. Hipster jewelry. Mini vape pipes. Dorkwear. Hell no. They were a Google Glass-level example of face-worn tech gone wrong.

And then, people starting wearing them.

After a September 2016 unveiling, AirPods didn't start shipping until mid-December. As 2017 began, I slowly began to see others with AirPods... on random street corners, in subways. Now they're approaching Apple Watch levels of normalcy.

And all this time, I've been wearing them. The AirPods won me over. And, while Apple hasn't given actual sales numbers, NPD reports that AirPods are dominating the market, scooping up 85 cents of every dollar spent on truly wireless headphones in 2017. In fact, they're still hard to get, with shipping delays of 2-3 weeks.

As I look at the long white buds in my hand as we approach Apple's next September event, I think about how AirPods made the journey from internet joke to must-have gadget -- and what it means for the future.


They're convenient, if nothing else.

Sarah Tew/CNET

AirPods are practical. Unlike a weird pair of experimental smartglasses, these are compact wireless headphones. The microphones are good for calls. They're easy to carry, pretty easy to put on and take off and recharge. They've stayed with me because of convenience, not fashion. The iPhone 7's lack of a headphone jack forced the issue. Instead of carrying a weird pair of Lightning headphones or a dongle I'll lose, at least AirPods can be used with other Bluetooth devices.

Also, headphones are normal. Earbuds are normal. More advanced wireless buds and stranger-looking headsets still feel more acceptable for me to throw on my head than a pair of smartglasses.

AirPods are Apple's first experiment in face wearables. Apple's first wearable, the Apple Watch, has a stylish -- even conservative -- design. It looks fine, and you don't feel out of place wearing it versus a Swatch or a Fitbit.

AirPods could be said to be Apple's second wearable -- and the first one intended for your face. They're weird-looking. And yet, it doesn't seem to matter. The experiment worked.  

Carving out prominent design ideas on visible parts of people's bodies is one thing, but having them be easy to use is a whole other challenge. AirPods' control taps are primitive, but they're a step toward what could be done on other devices: tap to connect, tap to navigate.

That could be why "hearables" are starting to be seen as a trend. If no one can conquer optics on smartglasses yet, maybe in the meantime the ears are the next step on the road to getting there. More active noise filters, better AI. Maybe Apple keeps adding features to AirPods to advance them beyond just being regular earphones.

A few years from now, Apple just might be ready to offer another face wearable: "Apple Glasses." And even a semi-strange looking Apple smartglass product may find a more sympathetic audience than Google Glass did, maybe thanks to tens of millions of AirPods paving the way.

Will AirPods 2 be about fitness, or function, or both? Of course, Apple smartglasses aren't imminent (we assume). But Apple's September 12 event is. Will AirPods see a sequel as soon as next week? Or, simply, more colors? It seems likely that Apple will bring up AirPods, because they're cross-compatible with the iPhone and Apple Watch. They're mobile. They are, in a way, a third product in the mobile lineup. And there are still improvements to be made: better fit for sports, the possibility of added controls for volume, better wireless connectivity and range (would Bluetooth 5 help?), and maybe just reducing their size a bit.

But whether or not we see AirPods 2 next week, the legacy of Apple's first wireless headphones continue to loom large. Down the road, when Apple (probably) makes smartglasses, AirPods will be seen as a tiny first step.

If Apple could do it with these dorky headphones, there's no telling what could happen.

Goodbye, home button? Get ready for the iPhone's biggest change ever.

Apple event: What we expect at the big Sept. 12 iPhone (and more) launch.