When Apple dropped the audio jack it opened up voice computing

The new AirPods and the iPhone 7. Image courtesy of Apple.

This week was all about Apple. Specifically, it was all about Apple deciding to remove the century-old headphone jack on its next generation of iPhones. The replacement, an adapter dongle that someone called a tail, is inelegant. The tiny wireless ear buds dubbed AirPods that Apple also unveiled, are expensive and also are catching flak for their design.

But look deeper: I see Apple’s decision as a sign that it’s going all in on wireless sound, which is a way to beat Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s efforts at the voice user interface game.

The world has transitioned to one where a computer was a workstation that lived on your desk, to one that lived in your pocket. Now it is transitioning again to computing that is distributed everywhere.

Mice and keyboards were the user interface for the computer, and touch became the ideal for the smartphone. But when you put computers on thermostats, light switches and televisions, these user interfaces fall short. Voice, which started gaining ground on mobile phones, is pretty good for controlling computers in a wide variety of devices that lack keyboards.

Amazon gets credit for recognizing this first in the smart home with the creation of the Amazon Echo, which hit the market in December 2014. (It became widely available in June 2015). The Echo, which is a speaker combined with a voice-activated personal assistant, has become Amazon’s secret weapon to controlling the myriad connected home devices that early adopters are buying.

Echo’s popularity is such that Google is following suit with its own Echo-like device. LG has one that uses Amazon’s Alexa voice services and even Sony is selling an Echo-killer. Which is why, as Apple finally enters the connected home with its HomeKit framework embedded in iOS 10, people are wondering when it will put its voice-controlled personal assistant Siri in a can.

But who’s to say it has to? What Apple has done with its proprietary wireless radio in the AirPods and an ability to easily connect those headphones to any Apple device using iCloud is to put Siri in your ear. Removing the audio jack and replacing it with expensive wireless ear buds is part of a long-term commitment to a better user experience for controlling a world of connected devices. And that UX is built around voice.

By creating a wireless audio effort, Apple has created a way to securely link and communicate with any device that bears these chips. Today, these are Apple devices like a MacBook or iPad, but that’s not to say that Apple will stop there. What if the HomeKit certification means that a device also gets tied into an iCloud account, able to connect to these headphones? Then no matter how far away you are from an Apple TV remote or your phone, you can control connected devices.

You just need to keep your AirPods in your ear.

This is less exciting in a home, where having an Echo-like device makes sense. But if you could link your office environment to your AirPods using your Apple account, walking in could let you control your office with your voice, or perhaps your presence.

Today, the AirPods only get five hours of charge time and cost a fair amount. But that will change.

As a concept and an ecosystem AirPods are a powerful testament to how Apple sees people interacting with computers everywhere. It also underlies its strategy we’ve seen so far with HomeKit.

Apple is emphasizing hardware that contains an Apple-licensed chip so it can control both security and the user experience. This year, with iOS 10 it is layering a compelling software user interface on top of those devices.

Apple’s distributed computing strategy is becoming clear. It’s competitors are also showing their hands. Amazon is focusing on building a broad ecosystem, while Google is focused on bringing the best contextual insights it can to this fight.

So while the loss of the audio jack compromises Apple’s elegance and vision today, I think it fits with its larger plan to shape the evolution of computing everywhere.


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