World Cup 2018: Apple’s AirPods play a beautiful game

Soccer fans watching World Cup 2018 won’t have missed the number of footballers filmed wearing AirPods as they arrive at the stadium.

Apple, AirPod, iPhone, FIFA, World Cup 2018
Adam Patrick Murray

We may not have heard much more about Apple's AirPods at WWDC, but soccer fans watching World Cup 2018 won’t have missed the number of players filmed wearing them as they arrive at the stadium.

Shape of you

Thirty-two national teams are battling to win the coveted FIFA trophy, and hundreds of millions are watching worldwide.

To reach those people, Apple announced the addition of Siri support for football in Brazil, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Malaysia, Turkey, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Israel in the prelude to the game. Soccer fans in around 36 countries can now ask Siri for match scores, schedules, standings, and team rosters for Senegal, or others — some may even be using AirPods to do it.

And lots of footballers are being filmed with their AirPods in place. Take a look at this image of Japan’s Keisuke Honda arriving at the stadium, for example.

The AirPod kick-off

There are 736 players taking part in the tournament this year. Apple isn’t sponsoring the cup and doesn’t appear to be advertising around the championship, beyond its recent “How to Shoot Football” iPhone marketing plug.

FIFA has strict rules around use of branded headphones in designated “controlled areas” during its matches, so it’s reasonable to assume that all the images showing people using AirPods around the game reflect free personal choice.

If that’s true, then we’re certainly seeing people becoming increasingly used to using AirPods — and this hints that earlier prejudice around “wearing a toothbrush in your ears” is beginning to decline.

The beautiful game

We’ve been here before, of course, when Apple’s iconic white earbuds became the very definition of digital music in the iPod age.

Like then, initial resistance is mutating into acceptance — even New York style title The Cut now recognizes this.

That Apple’s next-generation smart wearables achieved a 98 percent customer satisfaction rating last year and a Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 75 reflects the built-in pester power of the Apple toys. The sight of soccer players wearing the devices around the world’s most important soccer event is a manifestation of this.

Anecdotally, I’m certainly seeing a growing number of people wearing these devices — and those I speak to seem universally enthusiastic about them. They like the convenience of using Siri to send and receive messages and calls, or listen to music. Security-conscious commuters use single buds to navigate new places with Maps, while keeping the second AirPod in their pocket. When iOS 12 ships, we’ll see the number of ways to make use of these devices grow, as Siri Shortcuts make more complex tasks available to wearers in conjunction with an iPhone. 

No news is news

Apple has kept AirPod sales data under wraps.

Why?

I think it’s because far from being an accessory, the devices represent a much wider strategic vision from a company that knows it must already navigate a path to a time when iPhones don’t matter anymore.

That path, in part, will be defined by wearables, ambient computing devices, and the company's push into services. The fact Apple isn’t sharing any sales data around the products speaks volumes.

Speaking in May, company CEO Tim Cook called them “incredibly popular” and a “runaway hit.” Analysts at Barclays have previously predicted 30 million sales in 2018, while former KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted about the same target figure earlier this year.

"We expect AirPods to remain one of the most popular Apple accessories in 2018, with shipments likely to rise 100 percent YoY to 26-28 million units," he said.

We don’t know if it will achieve more or less than that.

However, it seems possible that daily images of world-class soccer/football players voluntarily wearing the devices as they walk into the stadium will do a great deal to normalize both the appearance and boost the locked-in aspirational power of these devices.

Perhaps this will in the future be seen as a second defining point at which the Apple devices crossed over from the tech-savvy early adopter market into the mainstream, just 12 months since Kristen Stewart was seen wearing them in public.

Meanwhile, in the background, Apple continues to develop its future plans for these things.

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