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 rumor 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.
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 Obsoletesville. 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.
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-to-analog 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.
A line of Lightning headphones is certainly 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 adapter 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 colors and an Apple Pencil-style 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. Just ask Jim Dalrymple about Apple Music.
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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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.