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On Removing the Headphone Jack

The Wall Street Journal reported two things: 1.) Apple will be moving to a two-year cycle for major iPhone hardware updates, and 2.) the next iPhone won’t have a headphone jack.

And then a majority of the tech press lost its mind. Not so much about the two-year thing, more about the ditching of a 50 year-old standard. It reminds me of when Steve Jobs put the nail in the coffin of Flash on iOS. The industry’s visceral response has been nothing short of fascinating.

However, almost two weeks out from the WSJ’s report, we don’t know what we don’t know. But it’s summertime, a holiday weekend, and my coffee is strong, so let’s try and break this down a bit.

Losing the headphone jack would hurt. It’s everywhere: planes, clothing, and almost every electronic device that can play audio. To even broach the subject of removing this port has your regular, non-technical person asking “why?” or “are you shitting me?” Literally. I’ve asked a number of them.

The headphone jack is the absolute epitome of “it just works,” and that’s what makes Apple’s supposed planned abandonment so jarring. What could be simpler than this?

Well, at the moment, we don’t have an obvious replacement that is both simpler and has more benefits. Wireless headphones are nice, once you get used to them, but now remember to keep them charged and get frustrated whenever you try to pair them with a new device. Adapters are annoying to keep track of, and the same goes for dongles. Also, I’m sure people are less worried about the size of a Lightning-to-audio jack adapter and more concerned that Apple would sell such a thing for $14.99.

No obvious replacement, and an adapter-ridden or Bluetooth-pairing hell. So why replace the headphone jack at all?

Well, let’s take a step back and ask another question: will the headphone jack be around forever? Is that our premise? No, I don’t think so. Eventually, something better (or just more modern) will come around to replace it. But who’s going to be the first to do it? Here’s where we’re going to play the Apple card; because they’re the only ones who can actually try.

Apple might be the only company that has the ethos and brand capital to actually pull this sort of transition off. Changing our de-facto audio interface is no small task, and whether the replacement is wireless or some other proprietary method, it’s going to hurt. But Apple can push through. The fans will follow first; then, after a year, the redesigned iPhone will pull in a calmer, more adjusted public; and finally, in a few years, we’ll look at the headphone jack fondly, but without the reliance we currently have.

Additionally, and what some people have missed is, if Apple is planning on removing the headphone jack, this is, initially, only going to affect people who use Apple products. If history holds true, PC and Android users have nothing to worry about in the short-to-mid term. Even Samsung, who at times has blatantly ripped off the iPhone hardware, might sit this particular design decision out. Apple users will get hit first and need to live with the change for a while.

As a longtime Mac and iPhone user, I’m OK with that.

To hear that Apple is considering removing the headphone jack gives me pause, but it’s also not out of line with who they are as a company. They want to offer the simplest hardware and software possible, and because they own the whole gamut, it enables them to keep pushing the envelope of what “simple” means. Over the years, I’ve come to expect this particular form of innovation from them.

And yes: Apple hasn’t always innovated well, and I can’t say that removing the headphone jack isn’t user hostile and stupid. But similar things were said about removing the VGA port, the DVD drive, and Flash. Yet, when we get through the transition, things are generally both better and simpler.

To that end, I think a reasonable view of the situation is this:

Apple doesn’t think the future of getting audio into our ears is reliant on a 50 year-old standard. I imagine most innovative technology companies think that way. However, while the headphone jack is incredibly simple, cheap, and permeated throughout society, Apple is one of the only companies who could actually orchestrate the move to the next thing. An audio interface that can do more in different and better ways.

If Apple’s decided to do this, it’s done. The next iPhone is already well into production for release in the Fall. Now we just wait and see.

Saturday, 2 July 2016