John Gruber Misses the Point Completely About Lightning Headphones

So yeah, Apple wants to remove the headphone port from the iPhone, apparently. Nilay Patel wrote a rant article on The Verge describing how removing the headphone port would be “user-hostile and stupid” (like, it’s in the title of the article). He makes a compelling, if incomplete, case for why it hurts you for Apple to force this change, citing the potential for a return of music DRM, need for additional pricey adapters, major compatibility issues, and the fact that nobody really wants this.

Nilay’s article is written under the argument that it would be “user-hostile” to remove the headphone port. I’m going to define this as acting against the user’s wishes, or being designed without the user in mind. It seems pretty reasonable that a user would not want hardware compatibility issues, DRM-encumbered music, or significantly more expensive headphones. And users already have lots of devices compatible with the 3.5mm headphone port. Therefore, to remove the port in a way that is not user-hostile and stupid, Apple would have to provide more value and benefit than they are taking away, on top of whatever new features they provide.

Following it up, John Gruber writes a rebuttal comparing this transition to Apple’s removal of floppy drives in the late 90s by writing about how this will be a positive for Apple. A rebuttal should address the core argument made, and John’s rebuttal completely fails to do that.

I’m not familiar with how people are taking advantage of the “analog loophole” to do things with audio out of the iPhone headphone port that would be forbidden using the digital Lightning port…

They aren’t, because DRM in music was effectively killed in music, and never really implemented for things like movies (because, well, how many movies can you watch just by pirating the audio track?). This is because people were buying music, and because CDs were still being sold frequently without any protection.

But a trend shift is starting where people are moving away from buying music to streaming it through subscription services. Will Spotify, Tidal, or even the music companies themselves start mandating HDCP-esque copy protection in audio hardware? When pure digital headphones are the norm, will this become mandatory?

It may sound ridiculous but this is precisely why Blu-ray and digital download video is encumbered with DRM and playback issues. That DRM has only hurt the legitimate customer, and merely inconvenience the pirate. There’s few technologies that scream user-hostile like HDCP.

Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when? Maybe now is the wrong time, and Apple is making a mistake. I don’t know. None of us outside the company seem to know, because all that has leaked is that the new iPhone won’t have the port, with no explanation why. But I say at some point it will go away, and now seems like it might be the right time.

This question is absurd, as it is framed in the context of time. As if Apple should make a change just because this port is old. No, the right question is not “when”, it’s this: Is the proposed solution better enough than the status quo to justify a disruptive transition?

We don’t know how Apple will position it as superior, as John acknowledges right here. We’re just supposed to assume that this is a better solution, and that it “seems like it might be the right time”, based on… who knows. Until Apple answers that question, which they yet haven’t done publicly or through controlled media leaks, we can only speculate.

We know plenty of cons and a couple pros as it relates to speakers being speakers. We know that using an Apple-controlled cable instead of something other companies can build upon will create unsolvable market fragmentation issues. We know that using a closed standard will lead to decreased choice and increased prices in the market. So barring some bombshell announcement that changes how we think about digital headphones, this is a step forward and 7 steps back.

Patel misses the bigger problem. It’s not enforcement of DRM on audio playback. It’s enforcement of the MFi Program for certifying hardware that uses the Lightning port. Right now any headphone maker in the world can make any headphones they want for the standard jack. Not so with the Lightning port.

This doesn’t obviate the problem of DRM music coming back, but John is certainly correct here. On top of Apple being able to decide who can build iPhone-compatible headphones, the price of every pair of headphones would now need to include:

  • a Lightning-compatible authentication and negotiation chip
  • a digital-to-analog signal converter (a DAC)
  • an amplifier
  • a power regulator
  • MFi certification for all of this

Since the iPhone today includes a DAC, an amp, and power management, the headphone can focus on what they do best: turning an analog signal into sound. The iPhone comes with a good DAC and a passable amp, definitely good enough for daily headphone use, and people who care about audio quality can get a digital signal into their own DAC/amplifier and listen on whatever they like.

Removing the analog headphone port means you’re removing the DAC and the amplifier from the phone into the headphones. This is good news for the high-end, but awful news at the low end. Cheap DACs sound really, really bad, and that’s what you’re going to get in cheap headphones (which is what a lot of high school and college kids who lose their EarPods end up with). But no matter which you get, you will be paying a premium for it in your headphones, so Apple can save a few cents on one of the most commoditized components you’ll find in an iPhone.

[W]hatever the merits of this decision, it’s not about device thinness. The iPhone 6 is the thinnest iPhone to date at 6.9mm. The iPod Touch has a headphone jack and is just 6.1mm thick. The iPod Nano: 5.4mm. The analog headphone jack is more costly in terms of depth than thickness.

Here’s iFixit’s teardown of an iPhone 6, where we can helpfully see the headphone port. It’s not much deeper than the 3.5mm port, which is about 16mm in depth. It certainly consumes a non-trivial amount of internal volume, but what’s Apple going to do with it?

They can’t extend the screen down further, which would collide with the home button. They could fill it with a meager amount of battery, but the battery has such a significant surface area within the phone, they’d easily outmeasure it by just adding a slight amount of thickness.

From pictures, and knowing how big the plug is, the headphone port is roughly 14mm x 20mm x 6.5mm in size, or 1,820 cubic millimeters. From the iFixit teardown, the battery is 95.25mm x 38.1mm x 3.302 mm. If you add half a millimeter to the battery, you gain as much capacitance as the entire volume of the headphone port.
External floppy drives sucked too.

If you needed a floppy drive on an iMac, an external floppy drive was a lifesaver. Flash drives weren’t a thing for at least two years after the introduction of the iMac, at a meager 8 MB. Your alternatives were usually Zip drives (expensive and not ubiquitous) or a 56k modem, if you could figure out how to get a file over in the Internet in 1998. Wi-Fi wasn’t available for almost a year after the iMac’s release, and would take several years to become ubiquitous enough to depend on it.

An external floppy drive just sat on your desk unmoved. This was before laptops replaced desktops for people, as Wi-Fi wasn’t cheap enough to deploy at scale yet. And with two USB ports on the computer and two on the keyboard, you didn’t really have to juggle devices like you do today.

(Editor’s note: I will not be using the word “dongle”.)

Contrast this to the adapter situation that would be required for mobile phones. Want to keep your existing, non-Apple headphones? You’ll need a bulky analog-to-Lightning adapter, that will awkwardly hang out of your phone, easily lost, absorbing the physical stresses of walking or running or cycling or whatever else. Want to use your Lightning headphones with your work computer, or your Nintendo 3DS, or whatever else with a 3.5mm port? You’ll need a Lightning-to-analog adapter, which will come with similar problems. If you want to charge your phone and listen to music, you’ll need another adapter (and there’s no way the headphones come with a Lightning daisy-chain passthrough, and no way Apple puts a second Lightning port on the phone). It just becomes a huge mess.

All of which is great for Apple, and awful for customers.

Apple is the company that brought us the 30-pin and Lightning ports, and whose iPhones, iPods, and iPads have never had USB ports. “Enabling, open, and democratizing” have never been high on Apple’s list of priorities for external ports. They’re on the list, to be sure. Just not high on the list.

These decisions are all undeniably user-hostile. Apple could have worked with other companies to develop standards, as they did in the late 90s and early 2000s, to build a Lightning-like cable that everyone could use (which is what Micro-USB was, and what USB-C is quickly becoming). Instead, they built their own plugs and authenticator chips (which US law prevents you from reverse engineering) into cables of questionable quality that cannot effectively have competition. Compare this to the situation on Android, where cables are cheap, ubiquitous, and can be bought from many manufacturers.

This unmistakably benefits Apple, a company with a wide range of products designed to lock you in to their hardware. It does not benefit their customers.

The incompatibility that matters is with Apple’s own devices, particularly MacBooks. Presumably Apple’s Lightning earbuds will work on iPads, too. But it’s going to suck having to use different headphones (or a dongle) for the Mac than you use with your iOS devices. But again, this is no different than the transition from 30-pin to Lightning. You have to start somewhere.

There will always be rough transitions in technology. What separates this is a few factors. First, adopting Lightning would be a transition from an open technology to a closed one. We would literally be fragmenting the market for speakers and headphones. Second is the fact that the headphone plug is so ubiquitous. It is in everything from high-end home theater speakers and audiophile-quality headphones to cheap computer speakers and dollar store earbuds. It’s a plug on literally billions of devices, including computers, phones, AV systems, portable gaming machines, desk telephones, in-car audio systems, and all kinds of other things. It’s a known quantity; you get a device that can play audio, it’ll probably be there.

You have to start somewhere, yes. But not until it’s compelling. Until then, it’s change for the benefit of nobody but Apple, at the cost of convenience and interoperability for their customers.

And as for battery life, surely removing the deep headphone socket can only leave more room for a larger battery.

You can actually calculate this, and the internal volume of the headphone port pales compared to how much capacitance you’d get by just making the existing battery slightly thicker. Plus it would keep the battery its nice, manufacture rectangular shape.

I bet people will do just that [voting with their dollars]. And in five years we’ll look at analog headphone jacks the way we look at all the other legacy ports we’ve abandoned.

This is where the argument just gets sad. The iPhone is designed to lock you in to keep buying iPhones. iMessage, iCloud, AirDrop, Photos, all these services that make it super easy to turn on and almost impossible to get out of. Apple is, of course, free to do so, but they sure don’t advertise it.

An iPhone has become such a complex web of features and dependencies that an average customer isn’t going to think about something like this at the point of purchase. They’ll buy the iPhone, lose the EarPods, and suddenly be confronted with having to spend $30+ on headphones, rather than $10. And the decision to switch away becomes that much harder.

It is nigh impossible in mobile for existing customers to “just vote with your wallet” any more without significant time and cost.

What is good for Apple is not inherently good for you. There are times when what Apple does is in sync with what benefits their customers, such as in areas of privacy and security. But that same company released Apple Maps when it was literally years away from being ready for the real world, because it benefitted them to not deal with Google. The same company that forced U2 into everyone’s iTunes libraries without consent as a marketing ploy. The same company that made their music app frustratingly difficult to use so they could shove their subscription service into every nook and cranny of the user interface. Apple is not on your side by default.

John can argue all he wants that this is all somehow in the best interest of customers by virtue of it being great business for Apple, but it simply isn’t true. It also won’t be a hill that many customers will die on at the point of sale. People will not buy into Lightning headphones, they will put up with it. This transition will be painful and difficult because of just how thoroughly entrenched the current solution is, how little the new solution offers, and how many complications it adds for customers. Nilay is correct, it is user-hostile, and it is stupid.

But hey, it’s great for Apple.