Apple’s new iPhone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack, and it’s likely only a matter of time until the iPad follows suit. It’s actually not the first smartphone maker to do it, but given the company’s influence on the world of tech, and mobile technology in particular, this date probably marks the beginning of the end for the analog port in mass consumer gadgets.
Some in the media world, and even a few Apple fanboys, will try to make sense of the decision by simply comparing it to other prescient moves made by the tech giant, like ditching the floppy and CD drives on its earlier computers, the standard USB port (in the case of the recent MacBook), and even its own proprietary tech like FireWire or the 30-pin connector that died with the iPhone 5. They’ll faithfully recount how these design choices were once also a source of consternation for many consumers. Then they’ll address how most eventually realized that Apple’s thinking, though perhaps a smidge early, proved to be on the winning side of history. If applicable, they’ll move on to highlighting all the obvious benefits that came with ripping the bandage off for something else, like how the Lightning port was suddenly way easier to use than the 30-pin connector because it doesn’t matter which way you inserted the cord in your phone.
They might even go as far as mentioning how these moves helped us philosophically, in a weird kind of way, by forcing us to reevaluate how we interact with technology and embrace innovation (or argue how Apple’s choices helped gave the final push for newer technologies to go mainstream).
The pursuit of purer form factors has always, and openly, been a huge motivator for Apple.
These sentiments are undoubtedly what Apple exec Phil Schiller was trying to support by citing “courage” as the one of the main reasons for the omission of the port during the iPhone 7 launch (essentially nodding back to the old Think Different days, though in a much less catchy way). He then segued into a tangible example, mentioning Apple’s better, wireless vision for the future of personal audio, before introducing Apple’s new wireless take on the earbud, AirPods. Next, he addressed the obvious retort of why this wireless vision couldn’t be fulfilled while still keeping the headphone jack aboard.
The pursuit of purer form factors has always, and openly, been a huge motivator for Apple, and Schiller didn’t shy away from that with the case of the iPhone 7. To paraphrase his words, the physical size of the standard 3.5mm headphone jack was a road block to designing mobile devices that are both more powerful and more portable. By making headphones connect via the Lighting port, Apple’s hardware designers could put the saved internal room to better use.
And that’s really where the justification stopped, because frankly, there’s nothing more Schiller could say while still ignoring an obvious conflict of interest. This choice is fundamentally different from the controversial decisions of yore because it also easily traces back to one thing: money. That’s why it feels so much worse, whether it really was an intentional source of motivation for Apple or not.
Aside from maybe the move to the Lightning connector, it’s hard to argue that Apple had anything to gain financially from removing a widely used means of connectivity in the past. Also unlike most of those other choices, the loss of the headphone jack in favor of a Lightning connection offers few immediately obvious benefits to consumers like a noticeably slimmer form factor. (Note: However, it’s worth pointing out that the Lightning connection does actually offer some unique benefits that Apple strangely chose not to highlight, like the potential to power noise canceling headphones that normally require batteries, and offering more control over audio sound quality.)
At the same time, the shift has instantly created several relatable downsides. New iPhone owners can no longer charge their phones and listen to wired headphones at the same time without an adaptor. They also can’t use traditional wired headphones without the adaptor that Apple is including with every iPhone 7 purchase. Finally, as The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel has pointed out repeatedly, using a proprietary standard for audio opens up plenty of opportunities for Apple to restrict what will work with it down the road.
In fairness to Apple, we should all empathize with their current situation. It’s hard to dominate the tech industry for nearly a decade and still satiate the relentless growth demands of Wall Street. It’s no secret that iPhone and iPad sales have significantly slowed compared to the highs of a few years ago. It’s the unfortunate pit Apple dug for themselves by, ironically, acting in our best interests as consumers; by steadily increasing the quality and performance of mobile devices, Apple also steadily increased their usable lifespan, reducing the rate at which we feel compelled to upgrade.
And when you’re faced with this reality, the remaining paths of growth are clear. Either introduce significant innovations, expand into new product categories, or introduce planned obsolescence to encourage consumers to replace their existing devices. And if you can accomplish any of these together, all the better.
Apple has always aggressively pursued the first and second strategies. They’ve expanded both their iPad and iPhone lineup to cover a wide range of prices and sizes. They transformed a “hobby” into a home-entertainment solution complete with its own OS and broke into the smartwatch and luxury-watch market at the same time. They’re even supposedly working on a car.
They also acquired Beats, for a princely sum of $3 billion — a company that happens to make its hay by selling products with arguably the longest effective lifespan for a piece of technology, other than maybe home speakers. It’s also the #1 seller of Bluetooth headphones.
By ditching the audio jack, Apple may have really wanted to inspire innovation and free up design space, but they’ve also pulled off one of the savviest business maneuvers the tech world has seen.
With one product release, they’ve single-handily created an entire new market for Lightning-compatible headphones. And if consumers don’t decide to buy Lightning headphones made from Apple, Cupertino will still get a cut from other headphone-makers who must pay to license their Lightning technology. Additionally, they’ve strengthened the appeal of upgrading to wireless headphones, since they’re more universal and don’t require an carrying around an adapter.
Whatever loyal Apple buyers wind up doing to adapt to this new reality, they’ll ultimately drive sales of new products, helping juice the company’s slowing growth curve — at least until the market is saturated again with their latest innovations.
So is ditching the headphone jack really courageous? Certainly. But it sure is hard to ignore the other upsides for Cupertino too. The iPhones of the future better be worth it.