Ap­ple should ditch 3.5mm head­phone jack

Why us­ing Light­ning in­stead isn’t as crazy as it sounds

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS - Michael Si­mon

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Ap­ple re­leases a new prod­uct that for­goes a stan­dard piece of legacy tech­nol­ogy. We read all about how said prod­uct is go­ing to fail and how we can’t pos­si­bly live with­out what­ever it is that got left off. Mil­lions of peo­ple buy one any­way, un­aware or un­af­fected by the change, and the rest of the in­dus­try comes around to Ap­ple’s way of think­ing.

So when I read the ru­mour that Ap­ple is ex­plor­ing an iPhone that ditched the 3.5mm head­phone jack,

I barely bat­ted an eye. Even if it turns out to not be true with re­gards to the iPhone 7, it’s a move that is in­evitable at some point in the iPhone’s evo­lu­tion. The uni­ver­sal port has been a func­tion of ev­ery au­dio de­vice since the ear­li­est days of the Sony Walk­man, and it has to irk Jony Ive to still be forced to in­clude one decades af­ter the Walk­man pop­u­lar­ized it.

But con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, I don’t think the de­ci­sion to re­move the port will be for de­sign rea­sons or out of a ra­bid de­sire to make the iPhone as thin as pos­si­ble. As many have al­ready pointed out, the iPod touch is al­ready thin­ner than the iPhone, head­phone jack and all. Rather, when Ap­ple moves to dump the stan­dard au­dio jack from the iPhone it will be in the name of progress, and like so many seem­ingly fool­ish de­ci­sions be­fore it, we’ll be all the bet­ter for it.

Se­rial killer

Ev­ery­one re­mem­bers the iMac for putting the first nail in the floppy disk’s cof­fin, but that wasn’t the only tech­nol­ogy it put on the road to obliv­ion. From our own first look at it: “Most dra­mat­i­cally, this new con­sumer of­fer­ing has no SCSI port, no stan­dard se­rial ports, and no ADB ports. Ap­ple has opted to re­place th­ese fa­mil­iar con­nec­tions with USB, a high-speed se­rial ar­chi­tec­ture that has suf­fered from slow adop­tion on the Win­tel plat­form de­spite its tech­ni­cal ad­van­tages. Cur­rently, no USB devices ex­ist for the Mac.”

In 1998, USB was still in its in­fancy, and Ap­ple took a huge risk by mak­ing it the sole con­nec­tor on the iMac, a de­ci­sion even bolder than fea­tur­ing

USB-C as the new MacBook’s only port. The iMac was Ap­ple’s last gasp, and had USB not taken off, it might had been the end. But we know how that story ended. USB devices ex­ploded and it quickly be­came the stan­dard in­put port on tow­ers and lap­tops ev­ery­where. Strag­glers aside, it didn’t take more than a few years be­fore se­rial and ADB were dis­tant mem­o­ries.

Re­mov­ing the head­phone jack from the iPhone is a sim­i­lar propo­si­tion. With the iMac, Ap­ple was bet­ting that a nascent yet clearly su­pe­rior tech­nol­ogy was on the verge of tak­ing off; by re­mov­ing the 3.5mm jack from its big­gest-sell­ing mo­bile prod­uct, Ap­ple is re­ly­ing on Light­ning and Blue­tooth to fa­cil­i­tate the tran­si­tion. But this time around, Ap­ple is hold­ing a much stronger hand – with an ace up its sleeve.

Power cord

Most peo­ple don’t know it, but Ap­ple has al­ready added a spec­i­fi­ca­tion to its Made For iPhone/iPod/ iPad pro­gram to al­low head­phones to con­nect di­rectly to the Light­ning port. In many ways they’re su­pe­rior to their 3.5mm coun­ter­parts, of­fer­ing loss­less dig­i­tal au­dio and en­abling ad­vanced fea­tures such as noise can­cel­la­tion and dig­i­tal-toana­logue con­ver­sion with­out the use of bat­ter­ies.

But much like USB in 1998, there are lim­ited op­tions for mu­sic lovers. The first ones to mar­ket – no­tably the Philips Fide­lio M2L and JBL’s up­com­ing Re­flect Aware ear­buds – are rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive with min­i­mal au­dio ben­e­fits. And of course, they only work with iOS devices, giv­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers lit­tle rea­son to in­vest in the tech­nol­ogy, es­pe­cially when

there’s a 3.5mm au­dio jack right next to it. Re­mov­ing that port would cer­tainly ac­cel­er­ate the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Light­ning-en­abled head­phones, but even though Ap­ple sells more iPhones than any other hand­set, the per­cent­age of peo­ple us­ing one is still rel­a­tively small, es­pe­cially when com­pared to the num­ber of mo­bile devices with an au­dio jack. And since Ap­ple is un­likely to li­cense the tech to the likes of Sam­sung and Huawei, it will prob­a­bly be a while be­fore ma­jor head­phone man­u­fac­tur­ers jump on board.

Pre­sum­ably Ap­ple will bun­dle a pair of Light­ning ear­buds, but be­yond that, true Light­ning head­phones will likely be rel­e­gated to the ‘pro’ crowd, with higher-end mod­els tak­ing ad­van­tage of the ad­vanced fea­tures to tar­get au­dio­philes on the go. And for those who own head­phones they can’t bear to part with, there will surely be a don­gle Ap­ple will be happy to sell them.

Un­plugged

A line of Light­ning head­phones is in­ter­est­ing, but I’m much more in­ter­ested in what Ap­ple can do with­out wires. The white cord hang­ing out of the top of our iPods might have been cool back in the click­wheel days, but that’s not the case any­more.

Blue­tooth head­phones are the fu­ture Ap­ple is bet­ting on, and I can en­vi­sion a cam­paign that spins the elim­i­na­tion of the head­phone jack in a pos­i­tive light, es­pe­cially if the iPhone con­tains some­thing like aptX or a home­grown codec to bol­ster the sound de­liv­ered to your ears. Blue­tooth au­dio has yet to reach its po­ten­tial, and a head­phone jack-less iPhone might be just the push it needs. Be­sides, Ap­ple’s not about to

add a se­cond Light­ning port to the iPhone, so the re­mov­able of the 3.5mm au­dio jack creates a prob­lem MacBook users will be fa­mil­iar with: With a sin­gle port re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery­thing, you won’t be able to use your wired head­phones and charge your phone at the same time. Ap­ple may in­deed be work­ing on a break­through in wire­less charg­ing for the next iPhone, but let’s face it, wired head­phone wear­ers will prob­a­bly get short shrift here, forced to buy a clunky adap­tor or jug­gle be­tween charg­ing and lis­ten­ing.

Made for iPhone

Whether we’re talk­ing about wired or wire­less, how­ever, Ap­ple is in a unique po­si­tion of strength when it comes to head­phones. It’s not just that it makes the most pop­u­lar smart­phone in the uni­verse – it also hap­pens to own one of the most pop­u­lar head­phone com­pa­nies. And I sus­pect Ap­ple is hard at work on the next gen­er­a­tion of Beats’ Solo and Pow­erBeats lines to help make the tran­si­tion that much smoother.

The Light­ning ear­buds that Ap­ple in­cludes will be good enough for a lot of peo­ple, but it could also have a whole line of Beats head­phones ready for all those mil­lions of launch-day sales. There’s any num­ber of ways it could en­tice buy­ers – bun­dles, BTO, Ap­ple Mu­sic dis­counts, even trade-ins – and since Ap­ple Stores al­ready of­fer a fi­nanc­ing plan with the iPhone Upgrade Pro­gram, it would prac­ti­cally be an im­pulse buy; a $200 pair of Blue­tooth head­phones would cost less than $10 a month spread out over two years. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if this one of the rea­sons it bought

Beats in the first place. Re­mov­ing a port that’s been stan­dard on ev­ery mo­bile au­dio de­vice for the past three decades is not a de­ci­sion Ap­ple is go­ing to take lightly, and it’s un­doubt­edly one Tim Cook and Jony Ive have been ru­mi­nat­ing on for some time. A line of Beats head­phones made ex­clu­sively for the iPhone, with match­ing colours and an Ap­ple Pen­cil­style quick-charg­ing port, would all but elim­i­nate the type of grow­ing pains the iMac ex­pe­ri­enced all those years ago.

Take the lead

No mat­ter when the iPhone loses the head­phone jack, it’s go­ing to cause an up­roar. Any time Ap­ple chooses to dump an old piece of tech, whether it’s the op­ti­cal drive or the 30-pin con­nec­tor, peo­ple are in­vari­ably left with out­dated equip­ment, but when you start mess­ing with peo­ple’s mu­sic, it gets per­sonal.

But the tran­si­tion needn’t be so painful. Sure, there will be in­com­pat­i­bil­ity and lost don­gles to con­tend with, but with Beats in its back pocket, Ap­ple can at least mit­i­gate some of the shock. And by sev­er­ing the de­pen­dency on the an­cient 3.5mm jack, it could spur other head­phone mak­ers to bring some real in­no­va­tion to mo­bile au­dio.

Be­cause there’s no point in fight­ing it. Sooner or later, we’ll all come around to Ap­ple’s way of think­ing.

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