What Every Product Marketing Manager Can Learn from Apple’s iPhone 7 3.5mm Headphone Jack Removal

Ever since the rumor came out that Apple had decided to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, I had listened, read and seen enough mocking of Apple from social media, tech journalists, Podcasts and news articles. Some people even want to paint Apple as the evil OEM that plans the conspiracy of racketeering more money from consumers by forcing them to purchase the new, highly-priced AirPod. Ignoring the non-sense, removing the 3.5mm headphone jack from today’s smartphone is a major decision, and the decision process is something every person in the field of Product Management (or even Senior Executive Levels) can learn something from.

Let me first establish the “baseline” that Apple did not leave the millions of headphone users in the cold with the iPhone 7 release. The iPhone 7 (and iPhone 7 Plus, applies below) includes a wired EarPod headphone with a Lighting connector in its box, and it also comes with a lightning-to-3.5mm-headphone-jack adapter, so people who do not use the EarPod can plug in their existing headphones. In both cases, the users cannot charge the phone and listening on the headphone at the same time, and that is pretty much the “only” inconvenience. (I believe there are many design and technological advantages of transporting the audio data through the lightning connector, but I will not waste time to discuss them here.)

The decision of removing the 3.5mm headphone jack comes down to design trade offs. I think Philip Schiller admitted that after the iPhone 7 announcement event through an interview. Apple wants to replace the Home button with a solid, force-sensing design, and they want to add IP67 spec to the iPhone 7, where a open-port like the 3.5mm headphone jack is a big liability. So, it is fair to say it took “courage” from Apple’s management team to make a decision that the 3.5mm headphone jack had to go, despite millions of users plug into it every day!

If we ignore “Apple” just for a second, and really think about the case from a product management and business success perspective, I would say there are quite a few things we could learn from this case. Removing a main feature from your flagship product that your customers use on a daily basis, while having the balls “courage” to sign up for a strong business case forecast, is something that very few product manager is willing to do. There are many cases where companies tried to “differentiate”, but failed to understand their customers, and ended up losing business and market share with their bad decisions. I believe the iPhone 7 will be another “door buster” product (it might prove otherwise, but we shall see). A big portion of the people mocking Apple will still upgrade their smartphones to the iPhone 7, and they will find a way of working around their “inconvenience”. Most likely though, I believe Apple will create a new industry shift that other OEMs will also remove the 3.5mm headphone jack (from some smartphone models) and start promoting either USB-C based headphones or wireless headsets.

In a typical company, it is always “safe” for the product marketing department to take a “our customers want all the features” approach and leave the burden to the engineering team to cram everything into the design of the product. However, when it comes down to design trade-offs, only the BEST Product Managers can take a bold decision and forgo something that others think is “necessary”. So when the time comes, I think there should be a list of questions to consider to assist the decision-making process:

  1. Ask yourself if you truly understand each feature in your product and how the customers are using them. Is the feature a “must have” or “nice to have”? Is the feature there because “we always had it”, “the customers are using it” or “the customers truly need it”? Is the feature “future proof” or is there a newer alternative technology that is available but requires some “conversion cost”?
  2. Do your product has significant performance advantages at your customers that you can remove some feature sets to reduce your cost or improve performance/add features at other dimensions?
  3. If you decide to remove some features that a portion of your customers rely on heavily, what do you need to do to help their transition and adoption to the new generation of products? (e.g. give them an adapter in the box)
  4. For product managers defining new products, is it possible to increase the “entry barrier” for future generation of devices, so that you will have a “brand elasticity” or “product elasticity” at your customers, to the point where a “shortcoming” or a “missing feature” will not impact the customer’s selection decision?
  5. Looking from your customer’s perspective, what does the list of feature priorities look like? Is there a new feature that you are about to introduce takes a higher priority than an established feature?
  6. Do you have the “courage” to make a decision? After all, it is OK to fail, as long as you are willing to learn from the failure (yes, I live in Silicon Valley)!