Apple just demonstrated why people hate the tech industry
No, the headphone jack is not the new floppy disk. Or the new CD or DVD, the new 30-pin Dock connector or the new FireWire port.
Excising the headphone jack from its new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus isn’t like those other rounds of enforced obsolescence. Apple (AAPL) killed a technology that’s worked fine for decades and left you with solutions that are costlier or more complex and work no better at the core function of delivering sound to your ears.
The new models are no thinner than last year’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, so it’s not as if Apple had no choice here. The company would like you to think of this deliberate downgrade—to quote marketing vice president Phil Schiller’s facepalm-inducing remark at Thursday’s event—as “courage.”
The correct word is “arrogance.”
The headphone jack has one job
Other technologies that Apple has offed over the years—the Verge’s infographic provides a helpful overview—aged poorly as our info-habits advanced.
The floppy disk stored too little data; old connectors like SCSI and Apple Desktop Bus were too big or too slow; the CD and DVD became less relevant as we shifted to media downloads and streaming.
Our ears, however, have not changed over the last few decades. We continue to be ship with at most two apiece, in most cases with an unchanged listening range.
And while music-playback hardware has evolved, the headphone jack isn’t holding it back, two audio experts said over e-mail.
“There is nothing necessarily limiting about the 3.5mm jack itself,” wrote Dan Thompson, assistant chair of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“It certainly isn’t any kind of liability for audio quality, and nearly every headphone on earth supports it,” said Christopher Montgomery, developer of a variety of open-source media formats.
Berklee’s Thompson added that a phone’s digital-to-analog conversion chipset and headphone amplifier can make a difference. He judged Apple’s as providing “very decent integrated audio performance.”
So the decades-old 3.5mm headphone jack, itself derived from 138-year-old hardware, continues to do its one job. You can take the headphones from a 1980 Sony Walkman and pop them into an iPhone 6s, and they should work just fine… although the foam padding on 36-year-old headphones is probably pretty gross by now, and they won’t let you control playback the way Apple’s headphones do.
Your alternatives: dongles, wireless or the Lightning tax
Now that Apple has ensured you can’t grab any random headphone and plug it directly into a new iPhone, you’re left with three options of varying unpleasantness.
You can keep using old headphones (here at my desk, I can touch three without getting out of my chair) if you remember to bring the dongle Apple will ship with each new iPhone. If you lose that adapter, a replacement costs $9.
Or you can buy a set of Bluetooth headphones. They are increasingly popular—the NPD Group found that in June, their sales passed those of wired headphones in the U.S. for the first time—and don’t have cords that can get tangled into an unholy mess.
But wireless headphones cost extra and need to be recharged. Often. Apple’s new $159 AirPods only run for five hours, so on a flight from the East Coast to San Francisco, they’ll run out somewhere over Nevada.
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus will ship with a set of wired headphones ($29 bought separately) that plug into the device’s Lightning port. Which is great, except they won’t work on any other company’s mobile devices, Apple’s own computers, and every other device in the world with a headphone jack.
Lightning headphones from third parties will also carry the hidden Apple tax of the company’s “MFi” licensing and certification program. The Cupertino, Calif., firm doesn’t disclose how much it collects from the sale of each Lightning device, but past reports have put it at $4 a pop.
And when the only way for audio to go from an iPhone to headphones is via a digital channel that can be controlled by an app, your listening can be restricted by a music publisher’s “digital rights management” software, as Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow recently warned.
This is what people hate about the tech industry
Once again, Apple has offloaded the cost of its design choices to its customers. But this time, it delivers too little in return—the iPhone 7 is waterproof, but so are lots of other smartphones with a headphone jack, and dropping that connector to include stereo speakers only makes much sense if you don’t get out much.
Look, change happens in technology and often justifies the cost of adapting. I’ll tolerate the annoyance of replacing various USB cables and adapters with USB-C equivalents because this breakthrough connector promises an end to proprietary, pricey laptop power adapters.
But dumping the headphone jack for a proprietary successor is foolish. It inconveniences you for the sake of Apple’s design whims, not any improvement that you’ll notice in daily use. It’s yet another round of customers being told to buy the nth new version of a gadget, an app, an album or a movie… because technology.
We should all hope this move flops in the market, or Apple will be tempted to declare the power outlet also too bulky and in need of replacement with something more elegant.