AirPods and their Proprietary W1 Chip are the Latest in Apple’s Closed Garden Strategy

They forked Bluetooth

At last week’s Apple Event, the Cupertino tech giant unveiled a number of new products, most notably the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. However, they also announced the successor to their smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 2. These weren’t the only products Apple was touting, however.

In addition to these core hardware upgrades, Apple’s Phil Schiller introduced the first Apple-branded headphones since the Apple EarPods at their September event four years ago. These new headphones look identical to the existing pair except that they are cordless. And Apple believes this cordlessness merits a $159 price tag, over five times the cost of their wired equivalent. Well, their cordlessness and a “smart” factor powered by their new W1 wireless chip.

This chip enables the headphones to pair in one step through proprietary measures (that is, through  methods not present in the Bluetooth standard) with any iOS device. Yes, the device must run the Apple-exclusive mobile operating system to pair the devices without a button. You can also switch from using both headphones to one by taking an AirPod out of your ear, although this presumably requires some back-and-forth communication with the host device (phone, laptop, tablet) and since a software update adds this functionality to eligible iOS 10 devices, older Apple products and all non-Apple branded Bluetooth-enabled devices will be left out.

"Other types of products are theoretically compatible, but are relegated to second-tier status."

These features are built atop Bluetooth, so other types of products are theoretically compatible with the AirPods on a basic level, but are relegated to second-tier status. This is Apple's latest expression of its wall garden ethos; to get the most out of an Apple product, you must buy other Apple products. With core products like smartphones and tablets, it is less sinister because they must run some sort of software.

The same cannot be said for accessories like mice and headphones. Apple's Magic Mouse cannot be used on Windows without third party drivers. Are Apple customers who buy the AirPods and own Android or Windows devices expected to wait for or develop their own workaround? There is something seedy and anti-competitive inherent in this decision, but nothing about it is surprising.