Hit the road, jack: Why Apple may say goodbye to the headphone plug

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With fall just a few months away, it doesn’t take much of a crystal ball to predict that new iPhone and iPad hardware is waiting in the wings. Of course, being able to predict what form said hardware will take is another matter entirely, and one that leaves room for a lot more speculation.

It’s with that in mind that we consider the word on the street that the folks from Cupertino have added headphones to the list of Made for iPhone devices that can plug in to an iOS device using the Lightning connector. Such a development could mean that the headphone jack—a staple of mobile devices since the pre-smartphone era—is finally on its way out the door.

The 1800s are calling

I know, I know—I’m not making any friends here. The jack’s presence on everything from the venerable Walkman to the latest iPhone means that its sudden disappearance would immediately render many of our accessories obsolete. As the owner of many headphones—some of which I acquired for a pretty penny—I assure you that, once I turn this article in, I shall give myself a stern talking-to for even considering such a possibility.

Before we all reach for the nearest pitchfork and torch, however, it’s worth exploring whether the removal of the jack from our devices would, in the long run, be a change for the better—after all, many similar technologies have, in the past, suffered a similar fate at the hands of Apple’s design team (remember the floppy disk drive?) in order to pave the way for even better replacements. 

telephone operators National Archives

The headphone jack has remained largely unchanged since it started being used for telephone switchboards.

From this point of view, the most obvious reason for getting rid of the phone jack may simply be its age. Originally introduced in the 19th century to allow operators to quickly patch calls across the switchboards of the time, this ubiquitous connector is, as far as still-in-use technology goes, positively ancient.

That's not to say, however, that change should come just for its own sake. After all, Nintendo tried a similar move in 2005 with the release of the Game Boy Advance SP, and its attempt to use a single port for power and audio output—not unlike what Apple would do by going all-in with Lightning—was widely panned. 

There’s a hole in my phone

While its existence may still make sense in an analog world, the jack adds little to the listening experience on today’s mobile devices, where all audio is generated digitally anyway. In fact, its presence is often the cause of many rather significant problems, and has gotten in the way of Apple's design goals in the past. (The original iPhone, for example, sported a recessed jack that was incompatible with some plugs).

Besides, considering how tightly iOS devices continue to be built, the jack is becoming a gaping hole that remains fully exposed to the elements at all times. This can result in dust settling inside of it, causing the internal mechanism to get jammed and leave the handset stuck in headphone mode; plus, if water or excessive moisture make their way into it, your entire device could suffer permanent damage that Apple may refuse to cover under its warranty.

iphone5s bottom

Apple would surely like to unburden itself from the necessity of designing around the headphone jack.

On top of this, wireless headphones are becoming more and more common alongside Bluetooth’s increased ability to carry high-definition audio over reliable connections. While a wired headset is still an invaluable tool when you’re low on battery, technology is decidedly pushing us in a direction where wires pay a less prominent role all the time.

Thinner, lighter, smarter

In addition to getting rid of a few common problems, removing the jack from iOS devices could translate into a number of direct benefits to consumers. First of all, Apple could reclaim the space that it currently needs to reserve on its devices for the jack and use it for other purposes, such as making its devices thinner—or, perhaps, reorganizing the iPhone’s internals so that there’s more room inside for a bigger battery. If you recall, this was the same motivation that led the company to remove optical disc drives from its current crop of desktop and laptop computers—precisely because designing around that clunky apparatus was beginning to hinder Apple’s ability to slim them down any further.

Switching to Lightning-powered headphones could also mean richer controls for volume and playback. Until now, these have, to a certain extent, been made possible by the clever use of analog signals over multi-segmented connectors, but there’s a limit to what can be accomplished with this approach. With a fully digital interface and the ability to provide power, on the other hand, it might be possible to create headphones that offer advanced displays or better sound reproduction than is now possible. (Though that, in turn, might be a wash with any extra battery power Apple could get from freeing up the space currently occupied by the jack.)

Of course, none of this is good news for those of us who have jack-wired headphones—which is, well, just about anybody who’s ever owned a portable device in the last thirty years. Presumably, though, Apple would bundle newer devices with Lightning-connector earbuds, or—even better—a headphone jack-to-Lightning converter, making the transition a little less traumatic.

Caveat emptor

There are a couple more reasons why a switch away from jacks might be in the cards for Apple, although none are of particular benefit to us end users.

The first is that the Lightning connector is completely under Cupertino’s control. This allows the company to apply strict quality control over third party products, but also to limit their ability to tap into a vast market of hundreds of millions of customers without paying royalties. In practice, this means that—unless one resorts to grey-market products—Lightning-based earphones are likely to be more expensive than their jack-tipped counterpart, and contribute to locking users into the Apple ecosystem.

beats phones

Apple's recent investment in a company whose primary products are headphones may also play a part in this hypothetical move.

The second is that Apple just happens to have sunk three billion dollars into a company whose primary product is earphones. It would be naïve to think that this wouldn’t factor into a wholesale switch to Lightning connectors on all iOS devices somehow, presenting the company with the opportunity to leverage its investment in Beats to make a small fortune as the entire mobile market shifts away from jacks.

Ultimately, the switch to Lightning might be a positive change; I certainly wouldn’t mind doing away with the jack in exchange for a thinner iPhone that is not quite as susceptible to water and dust as the current models—it’s exactly the kind of improvement that I would expect Apple to make, and one that might well be worth the trouble of spending a few extra dollars on an adapter for my pair of expensive noise-cancelling Bose earbuds.

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