Wireless headphones and smartwatches (some thoughts)

I listen to a lot of podcasts and have been getting more and more into audiobooks. I initially just started out with earbuds, but for a bus or a train it’s really nice to have noise-canceling or else you need to crank the volume way up (audio quality on many podcasts is still pretty substandard). So I got some noise-canceling earbuds, but the ones I had were poorly designed with the battery/controls hanging as a deadweight in the middle of the cord constantly yanking on my years if it came unclipped (never mind the necessity of having to clip something to begin with). I recently got some noise-canceling headphones, and those were nice (they double as earmuffs in the dead of winter!) but they shared another problem with the previous iterations: cords.

I hate cords. They’re either too long or too short, they get caught on things, they flap about when I’m moving, and as they bounce they introduce noise into the headphones that’s distracting. It sounds petty, and compared to most things it is, and I did live with it for years, but a recent Verge video showed me the glorious reality that is wireless headphones. Having a battery wasn’t a problem as I already needed that for noise-cancellation, so I finally splurged on a pair of decent wireless headphones.

My first reaction was not as if the Gates of Heaven were opening up before me. They just… were. I’d put them on, listen to something, play, pause, take them off. Just ordinary.

I first noticed a difference when I was wearing them while cooking something. At times my body would unconsciously flinch in certain ways. Like my hips would jerk to the side. What was happening is that my body had learned to move in certain ways such that, had I been wearing corded headphones or earbuds, the spasm would have prevented them from being caught on a counter corner, say. I must unlearn what I have learned.

So wireless headphones are kind of like not being sick. When you’re sick you constantly notice yourself being sick, feeling like garbage and being congested. When you’re not sick you don’t wake up and think “I’m sure glad I’m not congested!” So it is with headphones: I don’t notice not being constantly annoyed. So rather than a directly positive sensation, what they provide is an absence of a negative.

In 1999, Ray Kurzweil wrote a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines in which he made predictions for 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099. In a 2010 revisit he rated himself rather highly on his 2009 predictions, whereas outside reviewers (myself included) have rated his success decidedly more modestly. I bring this up because I remember reading it many years ago and I recall in his 2009 chapter he talked about “body LANs” where we’d have a network of wireless connected devices on our person. I remembered about this while thinking about smartwatches recently. The basic pro-watch thesis that I’ve largely inherited from Ben Thompson at Stratechery goes as:

  1. Cell phones killed watches for many people, as the added convenience of it being right there on your wrist wasn’t enough to justify having Another Thing when you could just take your phone out of your pocket to check the time. Same with smartphones.
  2. The size of smartphone screens gradually inflated as consumers demanded more screen real estate and producers responded. Corollary: this made it more of a pain in the ass to dig the phone out of your pocket or purse.
  3. As the screens grew to small tablet size, and gap in the market in the low end emerged for a smaller screen in a person’s Screen Hierarchy (<gap> –> smartphone –> laptop/tablet/desktop –> TV).
  4. The promise of the smartwatch is to offload routine tasks of the smartphone like checking the time (obviously), audio controls (perhaps), electronic payment, perhaps driving directions, etc.

In this sense the smartwatch is like the wireless headphones: advancing civilization not by adding something new and wonderful but by removing annoyances (I leave the door open of course for developers to come up with new things that we couldn’t do before and haven’t thought of when you have an always available screen on your wrist). Moreover, if you have your supercomputer (by 1999 standards) smartphone in your pocket, wireless headphones on your head, and a smartwach on your wrist, the body LAN concept seems to have come true. Doubly so if the phone or watch starts to interface with other things in the environment, like the TV (remote control), lighting, car (remote start/lock [that was another annoyance-reducing advance that seemed trivial at the time, but after having used a key fob to lock/unlock, sticking a key physically into the door seems barbaric]), etc.

That’s where my thinking is currently. I quite enjoy my wireless headphones and would recommend them to anybody else sick of cords.

Edit (March 9, 2015): It looks like Matt Yglesias over at Vox is also on board with this thesis.

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