Dismantling an Industry Standard — The Audio Jack

2016 was the year of the removal of the 3.5mm audio jack. An interface we’ve used to access audio for over a decade (in one basic form or another.) The humble 3.5mm audio jack was removed from (arguably) the world’s most popular smartphone — the iPhone, in late 2016, with the latest iteration, the iPhone 7 (At the time). Its been a year since the release of the phone, and after the dust settled, a key issue remains. Apple has single handedly authored the destruction of an industry standard.

I agree with Apple, the 3.5mm headphone jack that has been the universal means to access audio for as long as I can remember, was too old to continue being the standard in the 2010’s. An analog medium, in an all too digital world. It took up too much space, and created hardware vulnerabilities. But the lovable audio jack served as the only hardware accessory to run seamlessly cross platform, and across product categories. From home audio systems, to desktop and personal computers, to tablets, and of course phones. The problem lies not in the removal of the headphone jack, but in its replacement, and the fact that because of Apple it is now no longer a cross-platform interface, but a proprietary one.

Apple’s mobile devices, with the exception of their laptop computers, all use the Apple-specific lightning I/O standard. A digital 8-pin, reversible interface, which replaced their infamous 30-pin connector back in 2014. Apple is the only manufacturer in the world with the right to officially use this hardware in their devices, as they are the sole creators of it. The rest of the industry is making the shift to the latest USB I/O platform, USB Type C. This connector looks physically similar to the Apple lightning port, but uses different hardware. It is the upcoming industry standard for power, audio, video, and other data I/O. A versatile medium indeed. The adoption as of September 14th is slow, but forthcoming, and USB Type C’s presence is more visible every day. Strangely enough, one of the pioneers in bringing this medium to the masses is actually Apple. Apple’s 12" MacBook launched with a single USB Type C port as well as a 3.5mm audio jack as the only hardware ports available on the computer. (Strange, since they updated this machine after the removal of the audio jack on the iPhone 7, but kept it on the MacBook). The latest Apple MacBook Pro computers also ship with only USB Type C ports, as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack. No other I/O to be found.

Right off the bat, these differences in standards that Apple sells to its customers make for an extremely jarring experience. On one hand, they aim to move to wireless(?) by removing the headphone jack on the iPhone, but let it remain on the desktop computer. They remove the compatibility aspect between other devices and its own iPhone in regard to audio I/O, making it harder for users to switch. They bring USB Type C to their computers, but not to their phones, and ship their phones with a Lightning to USB Type A connector, while selling computers that only have USB Type C receptacles. All of this provides a fragmented user experience for the customer, while only making things more confusing for new customers. Just switch the iPhone from Lightning to USB C, and ship with a USB C cable, and you’ve solved most of the problems I just proposed!