Competition is as competition does: The AirPods advantage

There’s a moment in the trailer for the 1988 movie Tucker when Jeff Bridges wonders why everyone’s upset about his car and Martin Landau tells him “You make the car too good.” After initially being a laughing stock, seems like we’ve arrived at that point with AirPods.

Writing for ZDNet, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes says “Apple’s AirPods Pro are the best earbuds you can buy, but for all the wrong reasons.” (Tip o’ the antlers to Brian and Peter.)

$249 is a lot of money for a set of earbuds. For that sort of money, they don’t need to be good, they need to be pretty much perfect.

And they are pretty much perfect.

Sounds awful so far.

But, still, $249 is a lot of cash…

Wait, we just covered this! You said for $249 they should be good and that they were. Now somehow we’re back to “They’re very expensive!”

Here’s the crux of Kingley-Hughes’ complaint:

No other company can compete with Apple in this field because no other company can build support for its product directly into the iOS platform.

Integration has always been Apple’s competitive advantage. For years we have been told it’s not an effective one because all markets become commoditized and Apple would simply get priced out. Over and over again. Priced out of computers. Priced out of digital music players. Priced out of smartphones. Priced out of iPod socks. Priced out of home speakers—okay, that one actually happened. But now that Apple’s effectively shown how to beat that in earphones by making a product that stands out, people have started saying it’s unfair.

Is it?

Kingsley-Hughes isn’t alone in feeling that Apple’s advantage of owning the whole stack is unfair. The Verge’s Nilay Patel has likened this back to the Microsoft antitrust action of the early 2000s and there are some similarities. Both are examples of companies using proprietary software integration to tie two things together. Microsoft took advantage of owning the desktop computer market by baking its web browser into the operating system. Windows is Internet Explorer and Internet Explorer is Windows, they said.