An Ode to the Headphone Jack

In early 2016, a relatively little-known smartphone manufacturer called LeEco made a bold statement with their flagship phone lineup the Le 2, Le 2 Pro, and the Le Max 2 by omitting the headphone jack. Shortly afterward, Apple followed suit by removing the headphone jack from their own flagship phone, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. While much has been written about why we’re seeing the demise of our trusty 3.5mm friend, the pioneers themselves told The Verge at the time that their reasoning was based on the audio benefits provided through the USB Type C standard. Amongst audiophiles, the jury is still out, and many disagree as to the advantages of the technology. Folderol reasons aside one thing is true as of September 2018 — the headphone jack is dead and Apple just killed it. Naysayers be damned.

“The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us,” ~ Phil Schiller, Senior VP of Marketing at Apple

Two years since that “bold” statement, Apple has completed what it started by having the courage (read audacity) to remove the last two devices that included the headphone jack with the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 6s devices. Coincidentally these are also the two devices that arguably are the best-designed smartphones from Apple and those with the least recurring manufacturing defects 3+ years later.

To understand how pivotal of a moment this is you first have to appreciate all the versatility that is the 3.5mm audio jack.

In large part thanks to the iPhones of yesteryear there is a rich history of accessory devices that use the headphone jack as part of their functionality Many of these independent and unrelated accessory makers have created such devices because the headphone jack is a universally included component. Regardless of your fandom, be it Windows, Android, Blackberry, MacOS, iOS, or whatever it just works.

Further, the headphone jack actually provides some amount of power to further power more devices and accessories. When you open up that possibility to the world of hackers and tinkerers we get new and exciting accessories that are actually useful. By removing the headphone jack from our devices we’re effectively forcing tinkerers to choose: do you design your accessory to work with Apple and the MFI standard (and pay a handsome Apple royalty with it) or do you design to work with the USB Type C standard. By the way, they don’t work together. At scale, the headphone jack is a much more utilitarian manufacturing decision and one that fortunately for consumers and unfortunately for manufacturers reinvigorates your “sad” device to compete with the latest device.

Take the iPhone SE, as an example. It is vastly outmaneuvered by today’s iPhone lineup. They’re faster, they shoot better photos with a slick camera, measure the ambient atmosphere through a barometer, enable wireless payment features, have multiple notification options and more. Hate to burst your bubble, diehard fans, but I can make my old iPhone do all of that and more with 3.5mm accessories. This piece of junk may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts.

It’s not all Apple’s fault. They didn’t set the trend, after all, and since 2016 the headphone jack has slowly disappeared from smartphones so much so that today more often than not manufacturers are beginning to use the inclusion of the 3.5mm audio jack as a way to stand apart from others. There is another dreadful implication with the removal of the headphone jack: repairability. Those among us who loathe the headphone jack suggest that the appropriate and necessary alternative is wireless. It is admittedly incredibly convenient to wirelessly charge my device and not have to worry about breaking my neck on the rats' nest of wires that lies ankle-height in waiting. With that convenience, however, we sacrifice the ability to replace our broken and dying components for glue sandwiches. If we’re going to steamroll into the post 3.5mm headphone jack world can we at least get a design for repairability out of it? Apple insists Liam and Daisy are their solutions to this sticky situation but simple math shows us that Liam and Daisy cannot do it alone.

Building a machine that can recycle aluminum cans is relatively easy. Building a machine that can recycle complicated iPhones is much harder. Building a global system that brings every single iPhone back to Apple’s centralized demanufacturing line at end-of-life is impossible. ~ Kyle Wiens, iFixit CEO

I’d like to propose a bold solution that was suggested two years ago by Kyle Wiens of iFixit when Apple first removed the headphone jack and officially started us on the path we trudge so willingly now: independent repair technicians and recyclers.

Let’s give them the solutions they need to easily take apart and fix products. We can end the “must destroy” policies that Apple has held recyclers to for so long and, further, provide them with the disassembly guides that Liam and Daisy are coded to follow. Truthfully we would need a couple thousand Liam and Daisy’s all over the world to truly make a dent in the problem of repairability and recyclability. They better get to copulating.