Forget mixed reality, Apple’s ‘next big thing’ could be something none of us expected.

Although having spent some time at JBL’s office in Amsterdam last year, the latest Apple patent doesn’t surprise me at all.

More on that in a moment.

According to the rumours, Apple has been working on a version of AirPods whose case features an interactive screen. I’m a bit late to the party commenting on this, but that’s because I wanted to let my mind wander a little.

Is this worth Apple’s time? Who wants it? What will it do? And, more importantly, does it signal a completely new direction for their music aspirations?

I now have many digested thoughts.

AirPods with a screen – the rumour

A patent filed by Apple in September 2021 and recently published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office details the need for a headphone case with ‘graphical user interactions’.

Confirming that “audio output device cases are commonly passive devices used to charge audio output devices”, the patent suggests that it would be much cooler (not the exact wording) for the user to be able to interact with the case more wholesomely. This would manifest itself in a touch screen displaying playback controls and various other ways of interacting with one’s music.

The patent describes other ways of interacting with the case, too, including swiping, tapping, and squeezing.


Interestingly, there’s also an indication that part of the reason for the proposed new design is due to “deficiencies associated with user control of wireless headphones. Apple wants to ensure this drain on society is “reduced or eliminated”.

This raises so many questions. Will it change the look, feel, and function of future AirPods? Will all playback controls and interactivity between your earbuds and iPhone be moved solely to the case? What does it mean for the iPhone and the Music app?

I think it’s pretty exciting.

Although, Apple has been beaten to it already. Because of course they have.

This isn’t new (obviously)

Last October, I was invited to JBL’s HQ in Amsterdam to check out some new products. The day was filled with the impressive might of their new soundbar collection, some interesting additions to their industry-smashing Bluetooth speaker range, and something I really wasn’t expecting.

The JBL Tour Pro 2 looks exactly like the product conjured up in Apple’s patent filing.

JBL Tour Pro 2

That’s because it does exactly what Apple is describing in the aforementioned patent. The Tour Pro 2 earbuds are housed safely within an AirPods Pro-like case which features a huge touch screen on the front of it.

The team at JBL were, understandably, very excited about their new product when I visited them last year. Proudly describing it as the first of its kind, they painted a picture of a world where you relied less on your smartphone and more on the devices that are intended solely for the task at hand. It seemed obvious, therefore, to add touchscreen-based controls to an earbud case.

JBL Tour Pro 2

JBL’s invention was fast, responsive, and made complete sense. It didn’t go overboard with features – playback, ANC switching, and charge status were the main highlights – because it doesn’t need to. And from a marketing perspective, it’s a killer move in a saturated, rather stale field.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at JBL HQ when this Apple patent was revealed, though.

What I’d like to see

Apple’s version of the Tour Pro 2 would be a brilliant first step. Turning the AirPods into a single-use device is the sort of blindingly obvious move only Apple can pull off before any of us have even got out of bed.

Apart from JBL.

I should note at this juncture that ‘single-use device’ is something I picked up from fellow YouTuber Jason T. Lewis, who coined it, and for whom I owe a great deal of inspiration for this blog post. You should check out his video on the topic.

Back to Apple’s patent, and I’m afraid it seems that a true single-use device isn’t quite what they have in mind – for now. The filed diagrams and descriptions suggest that the touchscreen-equipped AirPods will still rely very much on the iPhone to pump audio content into the listener’s ears. It’s conceivable that the case may feature some storage to allow a limited selection of your tunes to join you on a phone-less run, but you’d still need the latter to make it all work.

It’d be a bit like an Apple Watch.

Jason suggests that this new direction for the AirPods could result in a rebirth of the iPod. This gets me even more excited. I’ve made no secret of my frustration with the way the Apple ecosystem locks you in so comprehensively. Imagine being able to buy nothing but a pair of AirPods and still be able to listen to your music library or feed from a streaming service.

This would turn the AirPods into an iPod. It would also raise the need for some form of library syncing (and a cellular option) but how cool would it be to go back to the days of owning a device which fulfilled the role of standalone music player?

Wrapping up: will it happen?

We know that Apple works many years in advance when it comes to product development, therefore it isn’t a stretch to think that we might see this significant AirPods update sooner rather than later.

I’m hopeful. Now that JBL has put its best foot forward, the floor is open for Apple to step in and popularise such a product. The first iteration would likely be tempered, and I’d go as far to predict that it won’t be quite as capable as the Tour Pro 2. That’s what Apple does; usher in a highly polished first version with some irritating stuff missing, and then lap up the applause when version two arrives and completely revolutionises the sector.

The big question is “when?”. We’re in need of something big from Apple. As welcome as continual iterative updates to the existing product line are, more impressive headlines are desperately needed. A completely reimagined AirPods Pro experience would offer just that, and it could signal the return of an icon (eventually).

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