My Take on Apple’s Removal of the 3.5mm Headphone Jack on iPhone 7
What are people freaking out about?
Ever since Apple launched iPhone back in 2007, they have consistently released a new and improved model every year. With the exception of the first upgrade— the transition from iPhone to iPhone 3G — they have had a tic toc approach to their yearly releases. Every other year they would unveil a new — and sometimes radical — industrial design (is this the tic or the toc?). In alternate years they would release a minor upgrade maintaining — or very slightly tweaking — the previous model’s industrial design but dramatically boosting internals to achieve better performance in different product areas — the so-called ‘s’ cycle (initially for speed, and unclear in Apple’s own marketing collateral whether it’s a capital or lowercase ‘S’): iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5s and iPhone 6s.
While each new industrial design has typically generated excitement among the press and the public, Apple has been consistently criticized on the ‘s’ cycles for not innovating enough; accused of just launching a slightly faster iPhone as if they were forcing their entire user base to upgrade every year. As if any company could revolutionize an entire industry every year. However, they have also consistently added some really interesting features in these cycles, including video recording (iPhone 3GS), Siri (iPhone 4S), Touch ID (iPhone 5s) and bigger screens/3D Touch (iPhone 6s). The cynics would say they had to add something to these models to make them somehow compelling, but the reality is that Apple is known to innovate through a slow process of iteration.
Now, however, they have broken their traditional process in two significant ways. First, iPhone 7 is not based on a new industrial design, but rather a polished version of the same design we saw on the iPhone 6 and 6s families (including the Plus versions here). So, technically, Apple is re-using the same design for three models in a row, something unprecedented until now. Second — and this has caught a lot of (negative) attention from the press and public — they are removing the ubiquitous 3.5 mm headphone jack from the bottom of iPhone 7.
Instead, wired headphones will have to be connected to Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. Alternatively, users could choose to embrace the future and adopt wireless (Bluetooth) headphones, and Apple happens to offer ones named AirPods that, in typical Apple fashion, promise to overcome all the problems people complain about when dealing with Bluetooth headphones (reliability, pairing, battery life/charging, etc).
The press and the public have gone on a rage about Apple forcing people to adopt proprietary technologies, disregarding public opinion and the way their user base uses their products, and basically showing contempt towards open standards. While it is true that Apple will not hesitate to incorporate proprietary technology into their products if they believe it will proved a better user experience, the reality is that Apple is not forcing anyone to do absolutely anything with the removal of the headphone jack on iPhone 7.
Remember that Apple is including an adapter for free in every box so that people can keep using the exact same headphones they’re using with their current iPhones, whatever those happen to be. And that the adapter itself (if you need a spare) is only $9. The typical “Apple thing to do” would be to not include the adapter and charge $29 for it, so all in all I think Apple has done a pretty good job here.
The only thing this new situation does not allow is to listen to audio through wired headphones while charging your phone, but I honestly don’t believe this is a major use case, even if I have done it myself on occasion. If you’re in the car, you’re most likely already using Bluetooth for audio and the Lightning port for charging, or the Lightning port for both audio and charging. If you’re out and about, you’re hardly ever charging your phone. If you’re at your desk… that would potentially be the primary use case, but alternative solutions exist. Apple offers an iPhone dock that provides a 3.5 mm headphone jack connector. Third party vendors will be quick to offer adapters that incorporate a pass-through Lightning port for charging alongside the 3.5 mm headphone jack. In any case it’s a niche use case that has plenty of workarounds.
Could Apple have kept the analog audio jack for a little longer? Sure. But Apple isn’t know for being ‘sensitive’ to people’s ‘demands’ when they set their eyes on a vision. The reality is that the future of audio is not the 3.5 mm jack that Apple just removed. Whoever took the step to remove it first would have to deal with the flack. Apple just had the guts — the word that Phil Schiller used on stage was courage — to do it first (as they have done in the past, like removing floppy disks and optical drives from their laptops).
And maybe Apple didn’t technically have to remove the headphone jack on this particular version of the iPhone, but come the 10th anniversary iPhone next year— and it’s most likely radically new industrial design — I bet it will be quite evident that there simply wasn’t room for it. Instead of tarnishing the launch of their 10th anniversary device with the backlash over the removal of an archaic souvenir of decades old technology, they have decided to get it over with a year earlier. Remove the freaking band-aid quickly, albeit painfully. Next year, no one will remember this controversy.
Regarding the AirPods, my main objection is that the EarPods (which they’re based on) are ergonomically torturous — at least for my ears. I can’t wear them more than a minute before experiencing excruciating pain. So what I would really like to see is a wireless version of their in-ear headphones which are the only ones I can really wear — hopefully with a life-time supply of silicone tips included in the price, as they keep falling off and getting lost. It also remains to be seen how well the AirPods remain in people’s ears. They’re probably good enough to use while sitting at your desk or watching something on your iPad in bed, but I would be very hesitant to take them outside for a walk, let alone a jog or a run.
All in all, Apple has done nothing new. They have made a bold decision to do away with a port that users have grown used to seeing on every device that plays music. They have angered the masses, the same masses that will go out en masse to buy the new iPhone, and that won’t remember the headphone jack in a year from now when iPhone ‘X’ launches. People resist change. It’s what humans do. And often the change is perceived as unnecessary without the benefit of multiple years to look back upon, and realize that without that change certain new things you love and have grown used to would not have been possible.